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'All the tools they need': Data drives Republicans in 8th District race

Pete Stauber

DULUTH — Consider for a moment the possibilities that a majority of people in the 8th Congressional District 1) don't approve of government-run health care, and 2) support the policies of President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress.

For some, these might be hard claims to reconcile and they might dispute the information, or at least vote the other way. Others might wholeheartedly agree and say so at polls Nov. 6.

For the Republican National Committee, the two statements are supported by internal data. It's the sort of information driving campaign decisions in the 8th District race between Republican Pete Stauber, Democrat Joe Radinovich and Independence Party candidate Ray "Skip" Sandman.

"We're not parachuting in at the last minute to persuade voters," said Prentice Eager, regional data director for the Republican National Committee. "We have a ground game. These are Minnesotans talking to Minnesotans and they have all the tools they need to be effective."

In a conference call last month with Forum News Service, Eager and two other national committee operatives described how they are "aggressively partnering" with state parties and relaying data to battleground districts across the country.

"We're really pleased with our effort and ability to work with the state party," said Republican National Committee spokesperson Christiana Purves. "Chair (Jennifer) Carnahan is doing a great job and the more we can work as a team the more successful we can be."

Following the 2012 loss by Mitt Romney to incumbent President Barack Obama and his historically effective and digitized voter turnout machine, Republicans took a hard look at themselves. They quickly adopted a program of more predictive analytics, which continue to pays electoral dividends.

For the midterms, we're seeing the third election cycle of a data program continually building upon itself. The national committee works to get Republican Party candidates elected, and it poured in $200 million this cycle to update data and technology. It has trained 20,000 field organizers in how to access and use the data, fanning them out across the country, including Minnesota.

The regional team Forum News Service spoke with used anecdotes to emphasize the credibility of the program. They say they predicted national turnout in 2016's presidential race to within a point of the election's 137.5 million voters.

"We were the only ones that had us up in Michigan," Eager said. "We didn't have (Trump) up there until the last day of the election, but it finally broke to be a positive number. People were asking, 'Why are you spending time in Michigan?'"

As of last month, the Republican National Committee had collected over 74 billion data points related to a vast voter database which is layered with key pieces of information such as physical addresses, emails, cellphone numbers and social media IDs.

"That's what's different with this modeling," Eager said. "It's not just based on survey responses. We take that and add all of this other information onto it."

A film montage of their data collection machine would start every month with a live dial phone survey, sampling several thousands of voters. Computer screens would whir as more than 5,000 points of consumer data interacted with scrolling names and numbers in a Washington, D.C., data house full of smart folks in rolled-up sleeves who crunch numbers and put together the secret sauce. The whole process would zoom in on a close-up of the finishing flourish.

"We give scores to every voter," said Mark Jefferson, regional political director. "We ID where those voters are on a spectrum."

So by the time a volunteer knocks on a door, they know if the person answering it is a strong conservative voter who requires little more than a thank you, or someone who typically only votes presidential elections and will require a nudge to go to the polls in a midterm. To further help, volunteers use something called "dynamic scripting," which allows them to bring convincing messages to the right people.

"Maybe the person is more independent," Jefferson said, "we give more of a script geared to why they should support the Republican candidate in Minnesota."

Asked about its data approach, the Radinovich campaign seemed to describe a more old school way of doing things.

"It's largely us, building a list of 1:1 contacts with people we're meeting on the ground," spokesperson Bennett Smith said.

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee is working to get Stauber elected by striking what they say are convincing points over and over again — such as the first two statements at the top of this article.

"Specifically looking at the issues for Minnesota 8, the single-payer health care issue, for us, we have as a net oppose at 24 percent — 56 percent opposed and 32 percent support," Eager said.

On the topic of President Trump and Republicans in Congress, Eager said: "Are they helping create jobs and grow paychecks? Fifty two percent agree, 42 disagree. A majority again."

With the election two weeks away, people can expect a crush of volunteer activity in neighborhoods across the 18-county 8th District.

"We know the Dems love to say they're doing the same thing," Purves said, "but they're simply not."