Sep 24, 2014 4:46 PM

GOP embraces technology in Louisiana Senate race

The Associated Press

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) Dustin Brewster's door-knocking journey across a Baton Rouge neighborhood zigged then zagged.

After each home, he looked down at his phone, found his next target and approached another, armed with a list of questions and a pocketful of placards promoting Republican Bill Cassidy's campaign for U.S. Senate.

At roughly 1 out of 3 homes he visits, a door opens.

"I'm here with the Louisiana Republican Party. We're just going door to door, trying to gauge support for the midterms," the 21-year-old recent college graduate begins.

Brewster is not merely a GOP supporter, and his path on this recent day was not random. He is a foot soldier in the Republican Party's national drive to catch up to the Democrats' data collection know-how that helped power President Barack Obama to two terms in the White House.

This year, with every House seat and control of the Senate at stake, the party is depending on paid interns like Brewster and other party faithful to help the GOP close the technology gap. An app on his phone pointed the way to homes of Republicans who don't always vote in midterm elections, or non-Republicans who might be swayed to vote for GOP candidates.

"Do you have some time to answer a few questions?" Brewster asks during a recent two-hour tour, hoping to get answers he can feed into his phone, which will then upload to a central database.

What happens next is a crapshoot. At best, the voters take Brewster's questions whether they intend to vote for Cassidy or Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, and what's their opinion of Obama's health care law and Brewster uploads the answers. The database stores those and other facts to be harvested later, in ever-more-focused efforts to pinpoint "persuadable" voters.

But other times, Brewster inspires a get-off-my-lawn reception. At one house, an alarm warns Brewster to leave immediately. At another, a lady advises Brewster to get a permit before politicking. After visiting 74 houses, Brewster got answers at 24 doors.

"It's a monotony, but it's the important monotony that pays off in the end," said Republican National Committee spokesman Ben Voelkel, who is working with the Louisiana GOP. "The goal is to get to the point of having a well-oiled machine of knowing where supporters are and building new ones."

Democrats chuckle about the effort, saying the GOP is a decade behind in investing in technology. They point to their own nationwide, linked databases that helped Obama get elected president. And they suggest flaws in the methods the GOP is using.

Stephen Handwerk, the executive director of the Louisiana Democratic Party, said the organization has a robust data set to work from, information collected from Landrieu supporters in previous election cycles and from potential Democratic voters across issue debates through the years. Handwerk said that gives Democrats the ability to target voters on specific issues, rather than still being in the data-gathering phase of Republicans.

"We're way past that point," he said.

Republicans have targeted Landrieu as one of the nation's most vulnerable Democrats, running in a state where Obama lost and remains unpopular. The GOP needs six Senate seats to retake the majority in the chamber. The state party endorsed Cassidy, though Republican and tea party favorite Rob Maness also is on the November ballot and could force the race into a Dec. 6 runoff.

The RNC has shared a new set of digital tools with state parties around the country, as part of a multimillion-dollar technology project it's made a priority for the midterm elections. The committee won't put a price tag on its investment in the digital upgrade, which was done through a mix of contracts and in-house tech work.

To compete in Louisiana's tight Senate race, the candidates and the parties behind them are trying to find and persuade every available voter, and then maintain their interest in an election cycle likely to extend into December. Technology is a critical piece.

Voelkel said the GOP data collection effort, tracked neighborhood by neighborhood, will help the Republican Party identify who needs follow-up phone calls or visits to encourage them to show up at the polls. He said the information also will help build a ground game that will be available to the party for future elections, rather than starting from scratch each cycle.

Walking the neighborhoods for Republicans, Brewster's work follows a specific pattern. Two knocks at the door, Cassidy brochure tucked into the doorframe if no answer. When someone opens, Brewster introduces himself and launches into the speech. But busy lives and voter apathy in midterm elections interfere with Brewster's mission.

"I have a baby sleeping and a dog and no time," one woman tells him as she shuts the door.

A man at another house doesn't offer support for Landrieu or Cassidy, saying instead: "I like the other guy, what's his name?"


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