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GOP: 'Honey Badger' Data Fueled Absentee Surge in Florida Special Election

Republicans to Take New, Leaner Data Operation to Midterm Races

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David Jolly
David Jolly

Republican David Jolly took the special election for Florida's 13th district House seat last week by a tight margin, and the GOP thinks data had a lot to do with it. The congressional race may not be a direct bellwether for this year's midterm elections, but if anything, it portends one thing for Republicans: Data-analysis lessons learned during the Gulf Coast battle against Democrat Alex Sink will be applied heading into November.

Getting out the absentee ballot vote was key to the GOP win, insiders say. Now the party plans to take the analytical approach it used to decipher which voters it should target to vote absentee beyond Pinellas County, Fla.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Greg Walden "has invested a lot of time, resources and effort so our team can be ready to scale this to as many races as possible," said Gerrit Lansing, digital director of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Mr. Walden represents Oregon's second district.

The committee's data team evaluated all voters in the Florida district, whether or not they had already requested an absentee ballot. Based on vote-file information including party affiliation, age, voting history and previous methods of voting, they developed analytical models to determine which voters had a high probability of returning their absentee ballots.

"Projections a few weeks out showed that we were losing absentees by an amount we didn't like and that we needed to make a change," said John Rogers, deputy political director at NRCC. "We were fairly far along in the game when we noticed there was an ability for there to be a surge in Republican absentee ballots."

Mr. Jolly grabbed 48.4% of the vote, while Ms. Sink garnered a close 46.55%, according to Pinellas County data. More registered Republicans submitted absentee ballots: 54,184 registered Republicans returned them compared to 48,177 submitted by registered Democrats, according to county data.

The NRCC ran its absentee data analysis using a slimmed down version of the much larger Republican National Committee voter file. The leaner "Honey Badger" database is named after a notoriously ruthless, skunk-like carnivore with its very own internet meme. The creature and its "bad ass" ways were popularized by a humorously over-dubbed nature video that went viral in 2011 and later became the premise of a Wonderful Pistachio ad.

"Honey badger don't give a shit. It just takes what it wants," declared the narrator of the profanity-filled viral video. And that's the idea behind the odd appellation for a data program: to show that the NRCC wasn't afraid of the Democratic party's much-touted data and analytics operation.

The GOP and Democrats see this year's midterm elections as a test bed for data and technology that could be used in the 2016 presidential primaries and general election. However, both sides must first pare down their nationwide 2012 strategies into scrappier operations more suitable to statewide and down-ballot campaigns.

"It's a totally different ballgame to do it at a district level in the states," said Mr. Lansing.

The NRCC's independent expenditure campaign group, which operated separately from the rest of the effort as required by election law, launched VoteEarlyFlorida.com, a site allowing voters to request an absentee ballot or find their nearest early voting location. The site was linked to the RNC's voter database, which automatically fed voter contact information into forms to facilitate the absentee voting process. And, when people voted early or submitted absentee ballots, it was noted in the RNC voter file.

The party also used a new mobile application for door-to-door canvassers for the first time in the Sunshine State race. Information gathered by Jolly supporters and submitted using the app was added to the Honey Badger database and used to help optimize campaign efforts, said NRCC staff.

Though he questions the Republican party's ability to connect all the data dots and catch up to the Democrats, Tom Bonier, co-founder of Democratic data analytics firm Clarity Campaign Labs, admitted that in relation to the Florida special election, "They're clearly working on it."

Expect the data approach used in Florida to hit states where early voting and absentee balloting is especially important, such as Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.

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