Exit polling from the Virginia gubernatorial race indicates that Ken Cuccinelli (R) won voters aged 18-24 45%-39%, an over 25-point swing from the 2012 presidential race. This is a major accomplishment for the GOP, which regularly struggles with youth voters. However, the success has prompted an intra-party fight between the College Republican National Committee (CRNC) and Conservative Leadership PAC over who should get the credit for the success.
I wasn't planning on jumping into this fight, but a tweet caught my eye I could not just leave unchallenged.
“@CRNC was the only entity to invest in the VA youth vote. Cuccinelli won by 6 pts...”The tweet went on to link to a Politico article that claimed “the College Republican National Committee is set to take credit” for Cuccinelli's showing. Another tweet from Covert doubled-down on the claim, giving credit to the “CRNC team that made it happen.”
The CRNC's claim to credit is based on its online ad produced for the race, “Terryfish.” Alluding to a popular MTV show that performs well with younger viewers, the ad was backed by a $25,000 buy and appeared on sites like Hulu, Pandora, and Youtube.
Covert is the National CRNC Co-Chairman. In this case, his claim that the CRNC was the “only entity” playing for the youth vote in this race is factually incorrect. The Conservative Leadership PAC, associated with Morton Blackwell of the Leadership Institute, also invested over $75,000 into the youth vote in this race by hiring three youth coordinators for the Ken Cuccinelli campaign.
Which effort was more effective?
Voter Contact: Direct vs. Indirect
When we talk about voter contact, it is worth conceptualizing it in two ways: direct and indirect. Both are critical; Republicans typically ignore both with youth voters.
If I had to pick one or the other, I will generally pick direct voter contact, and in particular I would pick door-to-door. Study after study shows that it is an effective strategy for mobilizing and persuading voters (see Green and Gerber's Get Out The Vote) by closely approximating real personal interaction, and the only real limits to using it are the time and labor costs involved (financing a statewide canvassing operation is expensive!).
But of course you can't always talk directly to a voter. As Covert alludes to in a later tweet, this is particularly true among youth voters, as voter files are dominated by outdated phone lines (rather than cell phones) and youth voters are much more likely to move frequently than the rest of the electorate. Therefore, it is typically easier for campaigns and outside efforts to directly contact (and in effect, mobilize and persuade) other segments of the electorate than it is to target youth voters.
I won't join some of my fellow critics on Twitter and say that the “Terryfish” ad did nothing. Indirect voter contact is a useful tool, especially for reaching a large number of people with one “touch” through media (whether that be radio, television, online or print). A good field campaign reaching students at their doors can be supplemented with indirect advertising- as I previously noted, I want both. In an ideal world, field and advertising are not mutually exclusive but instead supplement each other. And I bet if you did an experimental study, having both would be the best strategy.
Nevertheless, there are four reasons that, if you made me pick between one or the other, the field campaign probably had more of an impact than the “Terryfish” ad.
1) Diluted digital environment
The McAuliffe campaign continued the recent Democratic domination of the Internet seen in the last two presidential cycles. From Patrick Ruffini:
"The numbers were clear in the Governor’s race. Terry McAuliffe paid his digital advertising agency 13 percent of what he paid for TV & radio ads. Ken Cuccinelli paid his approximately 2.5 percent of his TV costs, with the vast majority of that likely eaten up by day to day operating costs, making the real number spent on media much less. All told, McAuliffe appears to have spent at least seven times of Cuccinelli’s total on digital paid media — the only kind I as a Netflix-subscribing Virginia voter ever saw.”Campaigns are a tug of war, so the effectiveness of any given strategy is always in the context of what the other side is also doing. A $25,000 ad buy was probably not enough to significantly tilt the balance of power in this environment heavily weighted towards McAuliffe.
2) Disparities in field
In contrast, it is unlikely Democrats maintained such a disproportionate advantage in their field efforts targeting young voters. Here I will defer to those on the ground to what extent Republicans had an advantage in their field campaign targeting youth voters. The Cuccinelli campaign, thanks to the Conservative Leadership PAC, had three full-time youth coordinators on the ground in their race (normally, that organization will only send one for a statewide race).
It is less clear what type of field operation Democrats boasted targeting youth voters (since that information is less available for a clearly partisan Republican politico). So this point is something of a wash. My hunch is that Democrats had their usual campus groups and nonpartisan allies to mobilize youth voters but less of a formal in-house infrastructure to mobilize their own partisan youth voters than the Cuccinelli campaign boasted.
3) Field efforts uniquely boost youth voters
Importantly, field efforts don't just work with college students- there is a growing consensus among political scientists that field efforts work more effectively with young voters than they do with other demographic segments of the electorate (see Nickerson, 2006, and Bennion, 2005).
This makes sense. Consider Covert's criticism of field efforts (presumably directed towards those on Twitter throwing “credit” to the Youth for Cuccinelli effort bankrolled by the Conservative Leadership PAC.
“Field efforts are great & necessary but often never touch youth voters. We went where they were (online) and talked in their language #crnc”
Covert makes a fair point, and I laud the CRNC for targeting their online buy in such a way to get the most bang for their buck. But that ignores that the youth coordinators hired by the Conservative Leadership PAC are trained to focus on finding those young same voters in the field. It is why they put so much effort into canvassing on college campuses, tracked down contact information for thousands of students through Freedom of Information Act requests, and turned out identified supporters to the polls on election day. You may find a student online on Youtube, but you can also find them at their door.
4) The exit polls don't lie.
I only put this one last because it requires a caveat. As other RRH commenters have noted, the exit polls deal with a pretty small number of actual voters, and historically exit polling can be off by a few points in any given race. Take this typical comment:
“If you believe that crosstab, you can come pick up the Brooklyn Bridge at my house.”So the skeptic will be inclined to just ignore the crosstab. The only problem is that Cuccinelli only lost 18-29 year-olds by five points, two points worse than the margin he lost the general electorate by (we would normally expect Cuccinelli getting crushed in this demographic, especially while losing the race as a whole). Further, as Harry Enten at The Guardian points out, the numbers are not shocking in a national context.
The national numbers give a plausible explanation for why, independent of any form of voter contact, youth voters are more likely to vote Republican, as part of a national Obama-fatigue on the part of youth voters. But a victory like this was not seen in exit polling in the presidential race in 2012, when Obama crushed Romney in Virginia among youth voters.
This is what it comes down to- I understand that taking credit for accomplishments is an important part of fundraising, and I am glad the CRNC contributed to the campaign with their ad buy and have something for which to (rightfully) boast. But this game is not mutually exclusive. I don't understand why a reputable national organization is throwing other friendly organizations under the bus and refusing to acknowledge their assistance, especially when it has done so in the past. Ultimately, I do not want and have no interest in a fratricidal p*ssing match between rival youth organizations, but I do have an interest in giving credit where credit is due. Both organizations have something to be proud of here.
Addendum I: Some commenters may point out that some College Republican volunteers did help in the field effort; indeed, the youth coordinators are supposed to work with local CR chapters. However, state federations are affiliated with but operationally autonomous from the national organization, so the connection here is limited.
Addendum II: It is worth noting that according to 2009 exit polls, McDonnell took 55% of the 18-24 year-old vote and 54% of voters aged 18-29. However, McDonnell won the general electorate with a little over 58% of the vote, so it looks like he not significantly overperform among youth voters relative to his overall performance in quite the same way Cuccinelli did.