The door-knockers wearing matching T-shirts and carrying electronic tablets loaded with maps and survey scripts fanned out on a recent evening across Hillsborough County, a Florida enclave that has backed the winning presidential candidate in each of the last three elections.
Their mission: Find residents who share the small-government philosophy of Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit group founded by billionaire industrialists and Republican donors Charles and David Koch.
It’s a project conceived in envy, as the Kochs watched another billionaire, financier George Soros, underwrite a 2004 Democratic voter-turnout project that operated outside of the official party, said Tim Phillips, AFP’s president.
“To their credit, Soros and other progressive, liberal donors decided to strengthen the movement rather than the party,” Phillips said. “It eventually worked, and there’s no reason we can’t see the same success.”
Americans for Prosperity plans to spend $100 million this year, only about a third of it on costly television ads that lack the personal connections strategists in both parties agree are more effective in swaying voters.
AFP has opened offices in 34 states, hired 200 employees and armed hundreds of volunteers with digital devices -- deploying more than 4,000 mobile phones and tablets so far, said Levi Russell, the group’s spokesman.
Its 2.1 million activists -- they aren’t called members because they don’t pay dues -- are tapped for phone-banking sessions. AFP dialers have phone banked from a dock at a house in Lake Tahoe in Nevada, during road trips, and from the second floor of a Dairy Queen in Montana.
Phone banking is even woven into the schedule for AFP’s annual conference that begins today in Washington. Such outreach is taking place almost daily across the U.S. and is especially concentrated in 18 states that are either presidential battlegrounds or have competitive congressional or gubernatorial races.
“We prefer to spend our money on building,” Phillips said in an interview last week near AFP’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.
The group is carving its own niche in a growing constellation of Republican outside groups, including American Crossroads, which is guided by former President George W. Bush strategist Karl Rove. Rove has said he hopes to spend $250 million -- more than double AFP’s budget -- mainly on television advertisements attacking President Barack Obama and Democratic congressional candidates.
As a nonprofit, AFP isn’t required to disclose its donors or detail its spending in Federal Election Commission reports the way a candidate or super-political action committee must. And it is prohibited from explicitly endorsing or attacking a candidate in literature, on TV and in voter contact. It also can’t coordinate with the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Still, the rules are hardly daunting, as both Republican and Democratic groups supporting candidates adopt messages largely in sync with those being used by each political party to rally supporters and get them to the polls.
AFP and its companion Americans for Prosperity Foundation were founded in 2003, and the first few years were rocky because the mission -- economic freedom -- was too broad, said Phillips, who was involved from the beginning and in 2010 was paid $362,532 to serve as president, according to the most recent Internal Revenue Service records. David Koch is listed as chairman of the foundation.
The 2004 race between President George W. Bush and Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry provided some inspiration. Soros and other wealthy Democrats poured millions into outside political groups, including America Coming Together, which was a voter registration and turnout operation. Although ACT surpassed all its targets for recruiting new, like-minded voters, Kerry lost to Bush and in 2005 ACT was shuttered.
Even with that setback, Obama’s campaign in 2008 took lessons from it and improved the voter outreach program in its Obama For America arm, which succeeded in creating a grassroots army big enough to win the White House.
Phillips seeks to build a Republican variation of a lasting ground-game organization, he said.
His objective is to influence elections by spreading information about where candidates stand on such issues as lower taxes, less government spending and fewer regulations. In short, AFP aims to be to small government what the National Rifle Association is to gun rights -- a large enough network to hold elected officials, whether Republican or Democrat, accountable for their votes.
“The sole focus of candidates and even super-PACs is on personalities and process -- who’s up, who’s down,” said Greg Mueller, a longtime Republican communications strategist and president of CRC Public Relations, which counts AFP as a client. “Those groups are spending gazillions on ads but paying little attention to the issues important around the kitchen table.”
Evangelical groups that oppose abortion rights and the NRA have kept Republicans in line on their favored causes for decades, said Phillips.
“There was political pain if you caved on any of those,” Phillips said. “But there simply was not a group to hold people accountable for spending.”
As they talk to voters now, at their doorsteps and over the phone, AFP is focusing on health care, government spending and regulations -- issues that also happen to coincide with those Romney is using to promote his candidacy.
The group conducted a test run of its turnout operation during the June Wisconsin election to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker.
Kim Irvine, a paid coordinator in Florida, was among about 100 AFP activists brought in from across the country to help Walker, who’d angered Democrats by removing the bargaining rights of most state workers.
Phillips said the group spent $10 million on its efforts, which also included TV ads. The AFP ground troops knocked on 6,500 doors in the three days before Walker prevailed. The governor is a featured speaker at this week’s AFP Washington summit.
“Wisconsin was amazing,” Irvine said, “and it’s the tip of the iceberg.”
Knocking on Doors
AFP now is now setting its sights on influencing the outcome of the presidential and congressional races.
On July 30, Karen Jaroch knocked on doors in the quiet, upscale Carrollwood Village neighborhood of Tampa, Florida.
She bonded with Domenick Tufariello, barefoot in his doorway, over the trouble her husband and his son -- both storm water engineers -- had in finding a job. Tufariello was no fan of Obama or health care.
Jaroch tapped his answers to her three-question survey into her Samsung tablet, preloaded with his address and name, and thanked him for his time. Now AFP will keep in touch with Tufariello through Election Day.
As Hillsborough is a swing county, not all encounters were quite so friendly.
“Hi, there. Do you have a couple minutes to answer three questions about the economy and current events?” Jaroch asked a couple stepping out of their black Lexus. Dry cleaning slung over his shoulder, Bill Mentkow quickly fired off responses: Obama’s economic policies have made the country better, he “strongly approves” of the health care law. And health care is the most important issue to his family.
As Mentkow volunteered his opinion that the country was better off under Democratic President Bill Clinton than under Republican President George W. Bush, his wife interrupted:
“Who are you with, anyway, Republicans or Democrats?” Hilary Mentkow asked. “You’re not one of those super-PACs, are you?”
Jaroch, AFP’s paid Hillsborough County field coordinator, identified Americans for Prosperity as a nonprofit, nonpartisan group. She handed the couple a pamphlet and moved on.
Just as in door-knocking, technology is helping the group to be more efficient its phone banking. To develop their contact lists, they’ve purchased data from companies that cull magazine subscriptions and other available information for clues about a person’s political leanings.
On July 27, about a dozen AFP volunteers and employees gathered at a red-brick house with an American flag decoration on the door in suburban Woodbridge, Virginia.
As they snacked on Chick-fil-A, a telemarketing-like chatter rises in the kitchen and dining room.
“Hello, this is Tom, and I’m a volunteer with Americans for Prosperity’s Virginia chapter,” Tom Whitmore of Manassas said. “Do you have time to answer a few short questions about the economy?”
He began: “On a scale of one to five, one being strongly disapprove and five being strongly approve, how would you rate President Obama’s job performance?”