Republicans stepping up their ground game, building a volunteer army ahead of the 2018 election
Clustered around a coffee table in a house near the end of a cul-de-sac in a sleepy neighborhood just north of Summerlin on a recent Wednesday evening, the Republicans were building their army.
Their bunker: Your average suburban living room swathed in shades of beige, brown and orange, a pink orchid perched on a side table. Their rations: A Little Caesars pizza. Their dog tags: “Hello my name is” stickers. Their war: The 2018 midterm elections.
It was, in some ways, a motley crew — a few high school-aged kids, a handful of young 20-something-year-old men and some middle-aged women — largely wide-eyed and eager to learn about the party, some of them still basically brand-new Republicans. Each had carved a couple of hours out of his or her evening, and sacrificed watching the first seven minutes of the Golden Knights’ second game in the Stanley Cup, to attend a volunteer training put on by the Republican National Committee.
The one-and-a-half hour introductory training is a part of the RNC’s Republican Leadership Initiative program, which aims to amass throngs of volunteers nationwide ahead of the 2018 election and, looking longer term, the 2020 presidential election. At the meeting, volunteers learned about building relationships, the neighborhood team model, volunteer recruitment, voter contact and the RNC’s data program.
The RNC’s focus over the last few months has been on building small neighborhood teams in all 17 counties across the state that can then be quickly activated to knock on doors and man phone banks to turn out Republican voters and persuade those still undecided as the election draws near. Each neighborhood team has a leader, who is responsible for building relationships within the community; core team members, who often specialize in certain areas such as data or faith-based initiatives; and volunteers.
So far, the RNC says it has trained 1,300 fellows, neighborhood team leaders, core team members and volunteers across Nevada ahead of the 2018 election. Nationwide, they claim to have trained 14,000 fellows, have 1,800 active neighborhood team leaders and core team members and another 1,000 neighborhood team leaders and core team members are in the process of being tested.
Although door knocking and phone-banking efforts haven’t yet begun in earnest, RNC volunteers have already knocked more than 150,000 doors and made more than 115,000 phone calls in Nevada to test the infrastructure of those neighborhood teams, RNC Nevada State Director Dan Coats said.
“That's what we're doing day in and day out,” Coats told the volunteers. “We're trying to build this volunteer army to elect Republicans up and down the ballot.”
It’s a page taken right out of the playbook of the Democrats, who have historically had a much stronger field operation than the Republicans both in Nevada and across the country. To target and turn out voters, the RNC is coupling building a volunteer network with compiling a robust data warehouse, hallmarks of President Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns. The RNC also started its 2018 operation earlier than it ever has before, bringing on staff in Nevada in June 2017.
“I do think this is a defining year for Nevada,” Coats said. “Are we going to go down the path of what California is looking like now? I don't think anybody in this room wants that. I don't think the majority of Nevadans want that, and so we’ve really got to hit the ground, knock on doors, build these relationships.”
Coats said the party’s efforts represent a continuation of the RNC’s strategy in 2016 — one that was ultimately successful in helping to propel Trump to victory as his own campaign struggled to build national infrastructure and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign failed to focus on key states such as Wisconsin and Michigan. But that strategy did not have the same effect in Nevada, where Clinton beat Trump by 2.5 points and Democrats swept the open U.S. Senate seat and two competitive congressional seats and took control of the state Senate and the Assembly.
As the GOP looks forward to November, Republicans are also looking backward to the 2014 election where low Democratic turnout aided a Republican victory in Nevada. Republicans swept all six of the state’s constitutional offices and took control of the state Senate and the Assembly.
Democrats had about an 89,000-person voter registration advantage headed into the blue wave election in 2016, compared to a 62,000-person advantage in the red wave of 2014.
“We want to see kind of the wave that we saw in 2014 where we elected Republicans up and down the ballot and took back some of our congressional seats,” Coats told the volunteers. “I think we'll see that happen in 2018 as well because of what's happening in this room.”
Since February 2017, when Democrats had their largest voter registration lead this cycle, Republicans have narrowed the Democratic advantage from about 106,000 to a little under 63,000. At least some of that was due in part to routine voter roll attrition, which caused Democrats to lose about 18,000 voters in October and 28,000 in November, where Republicans only lost 6,000 and 13,000, respectively.
In general, Republicans have increased their voter registration numbers by about 3,000 since June 2017, while Democrats have lost about 25,000 and there are about 3,000 fewer nonpartisans.
“We're making tremendous progress in the voter registration game as well, which is going to be key to victory,” Coats said.
The RNC has also been sending out volunteers to gather signatures on petitions, such as asking people to show their support for the tax reform bill passed by Congress in December, to help identify likely Republican voters. Coats said that tax reform is one of the key issues the party likes talking to undecided voters about and will highlight companies locally such as South Point or Southwest Airlines that gave pay increases to workers after the bill was passed.
The data collected on the petitions is then fed back into the RNC’s vast voter scores network, which helps the party identify likely Republican, likely Democratic and likely swing voters along with how likely that person is to actually show up on election day. That information is then fed into a phone app that gives volunteers who are knocking on doors a specific script to use based on the characteristics of that voter.
“We know what party they're registered with, what universe do they fall in, so they can kind of say if this is a [get out the vote] target, this is how I can approach this person,” Coats said. “Volunteers are empowered with that information.”
But the overall focus of the Wednesday training was on building relationships to draw in volunteers, identifying skills that volunteers may have and then promoting them up the ranks, all with the goal of building those neighborhood teams to eventually activate come election time.
“We are here to recruit volunteers, train volunteers, organize volunteers in neighborhood teams in order to ID, persuade and turn out voters,” Coats told the group. “That’s a lot of fancy words, but it means we need a lot of passionate Republicans across the state contacting their neighbors to turn voters out. We want Nevadans talking to Nevadans. We want Republicans turning out Republicans.”
Michael Cummins, the 17-year-old host of the event, has been volunteering about five to eight hours a week with the Republican National Committee since the fall and worked his way up to become a neighborhood team leader. Cummins said he initially supported Hillary Clinton in her 2016 bid for the White House until he got into an argument with a conservative friend who challenged him to do his research about President Donald Trump.
“I started reading different things and watching different things that Trump said,” Cummins said in an interview after the training. “I remember sitting through an entire rally — I forgot where he was at — but I was watching it on TV. To my surprise, it was very inspirational. He got people really — how do you say it? — rallied, I guess?”
He said he started watching YouTube videos from conservative commentators such as Ben Shapiro, Ann Coulter and Gavin McInnes.
“The more I began to watch them, the more I realized how different they are from what I was already watching,” Cummins said. “These guys, they were funny. I liked watching them because they cracked jokes all the time. I wasn't bored.”
After the race was called on election night, Cummins said that his mom gave him a long talk about how the U.S. “is a different country from now on.”
“I wanted to tell her, ‘Stop being so dramatic. It's not that bad,’” Cummins said. “But turns out our country is doing well. We're doing spectacular.”
When a couple of field organizers showed up at his school, Veterans Tribute Career and Technical Academy, last fall looking for volunteers, Cummins wandered over to the table. The organizers told him about the opportunity to volunteer with the RNC’s Republican Leadership Initiative and Cummins, who said his school requires him to complete a certain number of volunteer hours anyways, signed right up.
“It’s no different than being around a group of friends,” Cummins said. “I just see it as going out with my friends and hanging out. We’re still door knocking. We’re still phone banking … It’s the friendships that make you stay.”
On this particular Wednesday evening, Cummins had invited both a friend from school and a co-worker to participate in the volunteer training.
“That's kind of the feeling I want to give to people I recruit like my friend Brandon out there,” Cummins said. “I invited him over to my house — this is the first time he's been over here — we have food, drinks. We're going to watch the game right afterwards.”
Rosemary Flores, a 53-year-old former casino industry worker and one of the attendees of the training, got involved with the RNC over the past couple of months after voting for Trump in the 2016 election. She said that she had been a lifelong Democrat, an immigration activist and even volunteered for Clinton’s 2016 campaign until she realized that her values more closely aligned with the Republican Party.
“The day I voted for president was very special. It was incredible. Before I pushed that button, I thought about my family. I thought about the future of my future grandchildren,” Flores said in an interview. “I also thought about the importance of my two sons not having good jobs and why most of my community, the undocumented community, had more than we had — better jobs, three trucks, two houses — and I realized that I needed to put my children first and it's more important to now voice for our people, for the U.S. citizens, for the veterans, for everyone, not only immigrants.”
Now, Flores focuses on outreach to the Hispanic community through the RNC and is hoping to help train volunteers in Spanish.
“It is important when I come together with the Hispanic community that I express why I became a Republican,” Flores said. “What the most important motive was my principles and values. When I express to the community about the principles and values they say, ‘Wow I didn't know I was a Republican. I'm a conservative.’”