The Republican Party has no delusions about the uphill battle it has ahead to build support among black voters in 2016. So, it's starting small.
Though the GOP has hired people dedicated to black voter outreach in places including Detroit and Philadelphia, it's launched its voter mobilization efforts in Ohio. The swing state serves as a test bed for its new #CommittedToCommunity initiative, a partnership with urban media firm Radio One that combines traditional methods like engaging with voters at church with geographically-targeted mobile ads and voter survey data collection via iPads.
The party aims to "reach voters who may not have heard from Republicans in quite some time," said Orlando Watson, communications director for black media at the RNC, adding that in 2012 the GOP failed to attract blacks, Hispanics, women and millennial voters.
Even the RNC's Chief Technology Officer, Azarias Reda, a first-generation American from Ethiopia, said that as a black voter, "The Republican Party had not reached out to me or talked to me," until after the organization unveiled its Growth and Opportunity Report in 2013. The report, the name of which is a variation on the classic Grand Old Party nickname, called for development of a "nationwide database of African American leaders" and noted, "we need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too."
"We're going to show up, we're going to collect data, we're going to talk to voters, and we're going to show up again," said Mr. Watson. The party wants to gather actionable data to help build models for scoring voters' likelihood to support GOP candidates and target messaging better.
The organization is on the ground at community and church events, where volunteers are equipped with iPads for gathering survey data. An early gauge of voter interest at events will come Saturday at a Women's Empowerment event in Cincinnati hosted by Radio One.
In 2014, exit polls showed 26% of black voters supported incumbent Republican Governor John Kasich in Ohio. But Republicans can't expect to make significant inroads easily among black voters.
An RNC radio spot launched July 20 features a discussion between women about the party's support for school choice and safe neighborhoods. Another features a young man chatting about a text message he received about "making college affordable, better job opportunities, and the best path to success if you want to own your own business," noting he got the text from the GOP.
"GOP – as in the Republican Party?" asks a surprised friend.
"You'll be hearing from them a lot more," suggests the man, mentioning he previously voted for a Republican. The ads will run on Radio One stations in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Columbus through Aug. 4, accompanied by geo-fenced mobile ads.
The party last year fostered a relationship with the predominately-black Pentecostal Church of God and Christ, and has established chapters at historically-black colleges including Morehouse College in Atlanta.
"We needed to identify more of what diversity voters care about," said Mr. Reda. The hope is that the partnership with Radio One, which plays hip-hop and gospel music along with talk shows like the "Reverend Al Sharpton Show" -- home to anti-Republican criticism -- will provide a large enough sample of black voters to generate meaningful insights.
"Some of these stations are overtly liberally slanted with Democrats," said Tara Wall, strategist for media and engagement at the RNC, who said she listens to urban radio, where she believes ads from groups on the right should be expected. "It should not be a monopoly on political thought."
The data collected will be matched against the voter file compiled by the party, which is enhanced with third-party consumer information from data brokers showing attributes like estimated household income. They're tracking basic ad metrics such as impressions and click-throughs, and the number of surveys completed at events or online, said Mr. Reda.
To have an impact, suggested said former RNC Chief Technology Officer Andrew Barkett, the GOP's black-voter outreach initiative needs to generate data that can be preserved in a format that is viable and measurable in the future. "I have seen very little sort of follow through with these things from the RNC," he said. "The proof is in the pudding if they can later mobilize African-American voters."