there is one Texas candidate who has studied the recent trends and built a grassroots campaign that’s devastatingly effective.
His name is Rick Perry.
If Perry wins another term as governor, the genesis of his re-election may date to 2005. That was the year Dave Carney, Perry’s longtime strategist, brought four of the nation’s top political scientists to Austin to study exactly which campaign tactics were the most effective. Among the group were Yale University professors Donald Green and Alan Gerber, who literally wrote the book on how to mobilize voters.
These tests “revealed that impersonal modes of contact, such as direct mail and automated calls, while seemingly inexpensive, were worthless,” Gimpel later wrote on the website of The National Review. “Carney and other Perry advisors reasoned that many conventional campaign tactics were being used out of force of habit—because that’s the way campaigns have always been done—but not because they worked.”
Now, with Perry seemingly well-positioned to win another four-year term, it’s easy to forget that a year and a half ago the governor faced perhaps the most perilous path to re-election of any incumbent in the country. First he had to navigate a three-way Republican primary in which he had to best U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison—who had more than $18.6 million in campaign money and the support of the Bush family, and who led Perry in early polling by 20 points—while holding off popular Tea Party activist Debra Medina on his right flank. He prevailed without having to waste time and resources on a runoff. Now he’s trying to defeat Bill White, the popular former mayor of Houston and the Democrats’ best-funded and most competitive statewide candidate in nearly a decade.
If Perry does win re-election, his reversal of fortune likely will be credited to his anti-Washington, anti-Obama message. And it’s true that candidates don’t prevail without an effective message. But Perry’s success will be due just as much to the kind of grassroots campaign he’s running.
Consider his trouncing of Hutchison. Before the primary, the conventional wisdom among the pundits was that the senator needed to expand the GOP primary electorate to include more moderate Republicans. A larger turnout would favor Hutchison, the experts said, while Perry would be best served by limiting turnout to just hardcore conservatives. But on primary day, the opposite proved true. The Republican turnout was enormous—more than double the number of voters from 2006—and Perry crushed Hutchison by 20 points.
How did Perry confound the critics and dominate a high-turnout primary? The governor had a winning message, and his strong ad campaign certainly didn’t hurt. But the credit largely went to a massive field operation that turned out more Perry voters than anyone knew existed. The governor received 759,296 votes in the primary—60,000 more than John McCain garnered in the 2008 presidential primary and more than the entire GOP electorate in 2006.