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The Curious Case of CREDO's Corporate, Democratic, Data-Driven Super PAC and "The Tea Party 10"

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, November 26 2012

CREDO Super PAC's 3,000 volunteers made thousands of calls and door-knocks to unseat Tea Party Republicans

After the Associated Press finally called the race for Ami Bera, the 47-year-old long-shot Democrat running for California’s newly-redrawn 7th Congressional District, CREDO SuperPAC’s National New Media Director Andy Kelley posted a celebratory photo of a couple of tall glasses of cold beer on his Facebook account and wrote: “Tonight we drink from the keg of victory.”

It looked like a smug post, but for the CREDO SuperPAC team, the past 11 months had been a hard slog. Unlike most other super PACs of the 2012 election cycle, the team decided to focus on field organizing efforts rather than television ads. Those field efforts eventually spanned 11 different congressional districts across the country, meaning that the SuperPAC had to effectively run 11 field campaigns against 11 Republican members of Congress that are favored by the Tea Party. By the end of the campaign season, CREDO had 80 full-time organizers.

Bera is a physician going to Congress for the first time but only after taking his second run against the nine-term Republican incumbent, Dan Lungren. His 2010 race against Lungren was pegged as potentially competitive, and Lungren won with just over 50 percent of the vote while third-party candidates split the seven points between Bera and a closer finish. The 2012 race was closer still: The AP hadn’t called it until November 15, when Bera won 51.1 percent of the votes compared to Lungren’s 48.9 percent. Lungren had been in CREDO’s sights since April, when the super PAC began accusing him of extremist views. CREDO hit Lungren on issues that would resonate with specific demographic groups, such as seniors, university students, and women. They charged that he was against marriage equality for gays and lesbians, voted to end Medicare “as we know it” by voting for Congressman Paul Ryan’s budget, voted to defund Planned Parenthood — CREDO being the largest corporate contributor to Planned Parenthood — and voted to cut Pell Grants for a third of the University of California’s undergraduates. The accusations piled up.

All of those messages might sound like typical liberal fare, but they had been carefully tested by CREDO. CREDO also decided to back Bera and 10 other candidates after it surveyed its activist base of three million customers asking them whether they would volunteer in a national campaign to unseat these particular Republicans, said Becky Bond, political director of CREDO Mobile, the phone company that established the SuperPAC and directed the more than year-long campaign. Bond said that there were many factors that went into picking the candidates, but the ultimate deciding factor was the availability of volunteers. CREDO only set up campaign offices in districts where it determined that it could count on a significant enough number of volunteers to show up and help to deliver its messages.

Looking ahead to future cycles, Democrats are becoming more comfortable with the idea of super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money in uncoordinated support or opposition of any candidate. CREDO's emerging model, which raised $3.5 million to fund a data-driven, field-oriented campaign in 11 House races — including five races where Tea Party Republicans were replaced with progressive-backed Democrats — may help to explain why.

Bond said that CREDO had worked with the a graduate student named David Broockman in the political science department at Berkeley to engage in randomized, controlled experiments to test messages that would resonate with voters. Broockman was a student of Columbia University’s Don Green, author of “Get Out The Vote.” They called a few hundred voters plucked out of the voter file and surveyed them on how much they knew about politics, and also tested a couple of different messages on them. They also called a few weeks after those initial questions to ask who they would vote for.

“We were trying to figure out what would move low-information voters,” Bond said in an interview. “We were able to discover what types of voters we would move, and also what messages would most likely move them.”

“Based on those results, we decided that we would target women who had a certain score range on the Catalist file, and who had a lower propensity to turn out,” Bond said. Catalist provides data on voters to left-leaning causes and organizations. Between it and NGP VAN, which handles voter data for the Democratic Party and its chosen candidates, left-leaning initiatives that can afford it generally don't go for want of usable voter data. “Then for the turnout phase of the campaign, we turned to women who were IDed who we suspected on the partisanship scale would vote for our candidate, then we just worked really hard to turn them out.”

Working hard meant having volunteers follow an Analyst Institute-written get-out-the-vote script near the end of the campaign: Knocking on the doors of people who had previously voted, thanking them for voting, asking them whether they could be counted on to vote for the Democrat in the race, and telling them that a lot of people in their district are turning out. The script also called for volunteers to ask voters what their plans were to get to the polling place, and if they didn’t have a ride, to offer them one.

Like any other modern political campaign, CREDO used email and Facebook pages to run its messaging, but that was all in the service of growing its field efforts, Bond said.

“Being involved in online politics isn’t about not having to deal with people,” Bond said. “It’s about having to deal with a lot of people. When it comes down to it, it’s not having things happen via remote control via social media. The gold standard is having something happen in person which started online.”

Bond attributes the “lion’s share” of the winning votes to the candidates’ campaigns themselves, but she argued that outside field campaigns can make a difference in close races.

Indeed, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has taken credit for “Reversing the Tea Party Wave,” with its own fundraising efforts and field campaign for candidates. The DCCC has said that it had 910 field staff in 63 districts across 26 states.

Nevertheless, Bond argued that CREDO’s work filled a gap by having its full-time staff of 40 and volunteers spending a lot of time talking to voters in person.

“The way we think about it is that the sheer number of high-quality contacts at the scale that we did can move a certain amount of voters,” she said.