DES MOINES — For six weeks last year, nothing much mattered to Andrew Brau except the numbers.
As an Obama for America field organizer in charge of a region that included Grinnell College and more rural parts of Tama and Poweshiek counties, he was used to thinking about numbers — how many absentee ballots hadn’t been returned, how many registered independents stopped by a campaign event — he got from the regional directors.
But the days between Sept. 27 and Nov. 6, it was everything he had been doing since May, but on steroids.
“That’s when we got really target-specific,” said Brau, 24, a Mount Pleasant native and University of Iowa graduate who works as a clerk in the Iowa House of Representatives for Rep. Frank Wood, D-Eldridge. “We knew how many door knocks we had done, we knew their voting history, we knew how many conversations we had. It was all in a database. We weren’t targeting people willy-nilly.”
Conventional political wisdom says that type of targeting paid off big for President Barack Obama’s re-election. For example, registered Democrats sent in close to 70,000 more absentee ballots than registered Republicans by Election Day, winning a majority of the ballots sent in every congressional district except northwestern Iowa’s 4th. Overall, 173,000 more absentee ballots were cast for Obama than Republican Mitt Romney.
Now, with the 2014 elections on the horizon, both parties are trying to build on what they collected for 2012 while making sure that data — the names, phone numbers, email addresses and issue information on millions of voters — doesn’t disappear.
“This is the earliest we’ve ever hired a field director, precisely because (data collection) is so important,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Tyler Olson, who hired Kevin Geiken in February.
Geiken is a veteran community and political field organizer most recently in charge of training for Obama’s Iowa effort. Olson, a state representative from Iowa City, was himself just elected to the post in late January, making the Geiken hire one of his first moves since taking over the office.
“While the data is important to this job and what we’re doing to put a successful team in place for 2014, it’s just one tool,” Olson said. “There are in-person trainings that need to occur. Work will be done to recruit volunteers to organize in their communities and work with county and district central committees to get them organized and trained.”
Dave Kochel, a top adviser for Romney’s Victory effort in Iowa and founder of Redwave Communications, said Republicans “have to do a much better job” of organizing than they did in 2012, with part of that improvement coming from increasingly sophisticated data collection and interpretation.
Because Iowa was a tossup in the general election, there’s arguably more and better data on Iowa voters than ever before because the state party data collection efforts were enhanced, or surpassed, by the presidential campaign efforts.
Kochel said the data collected by the Romney campaign was turned over to the Republican National Committee for future use by Republican candidates. The Obama for America campaign, meanwhile, has morphed into Organizing for America. It’s a non-profit with the aim of promoting Obama’s agenda across the country, and it holds all the data collected by the president’s campaign.
“Right now, we’re waiting to see what happens with that,” Olson said. “We’d like to use it.”
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman A.J. Spiker said the state’s party organization isn’t focused on data collection and field work right now as much as it is on refining the party message.
“Traditionally, the field operatives in the Republican Party have been deployed the year of the election,” he said.
He said the party lost the battle for independents, and that’s why he has publicly pushed the party’s conservative credentials.
Commentator and 2008 Republican Iowa Caucus winner Mike Huckabee was in town last month for a Republican Party fundraiser, and Spiker has burnished the party’s anti-tax stance with a public campaign against potential fuel tax increase legislation at the Statehouse.
“The biggest issue right now is for us to talk to the voters, to listen to what they say about 2012,” Spiker said.
Kochel is skeptical.
“Defining a message is a candidate’s job,” he said. “Building the infrastructure is the party’s job.”
Meanwhile, campaign workers such as Brau, an affable 6-foot-tall wonk who built his own computer and plays the drums when he’s not occupied by politics, are itching to get back in the game.
“Yeah, this (clerk position) ends in May, so I’m hoping to do what I can to help in any way they need me,” he said.