Ralph Reed takes GOP high-tech

When Mitt Romney came to Atlanta on Wednesday, Ralph Reed was at his side. The longtime Republican strategist attended a Romney fundraiser, but his value to the cause goes far beyond a few thousand campaign dollars.

The figures that matter to Reed cascaded off the tongue in an interview last month at the Republican National Convention: 17.3 million social conservative voters in 15 swing states that Reed’s organization, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, will contact up to 12 times each.

Reed designed the effort, headquartered in Duluth, as a way to keep up in the escalating technological arms race of the modern campaign after Democrats “ran circles around us” in 2008, he said. Acting as a parallel structure to the parties and campaigns, targeted largely to religious voters to whom Reed is a familiar boyish face, it has the potential to tilt a tight election.

“Now everything that I envisioned in the aftermath of the ’08 election is happening,” Reed said.

The onetime executive director of the Christian Coalition marveled at how few of the voter targeting tools he now employs would have been possible in that group’s 1990s heyday.

Then his foot soldiers handed out voter guides at evangelical churches. Now they already know the tendencies of most of the worshippers inside.

Reed has taken data from consumer marketers and the Republican National Committee, mixed with his own files from the George W. Bush campaigns — when Reed helped Bush court social conservatives — and the Christian Coalition. FFC narrowed its efforts primarily to voters in presidential swing states. It will contact each of them between seven and 12 times – a text message, a call, an email, a postcard, a knock on the door.

When early voting begins in each swing state, FFC’s targeted voters will each get a text message telling them to vote, and the message links to a map for smartphone users showing them where their early voting site is.

“Not everybody in a church is going to vote Republican; not everybody in the most conservative evangelical church is going to vote Republican, for a variety of reasons,” said Sasha Issenberg, journalist and author of “The Victory Lab,” a new book about the science of campaigns. “So this type of politics is always a game of margins, we have just gotten a lot better. The most advanced tools have made us a lot better about shrinking the margins that you’re playing with.”

Still, Issenberg said Democrats remain ahead of Republicans in the technology of voter targeting. Their heavy investment in technology was spurred by Republican success in 2004 and the widespread notion that Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove had outsmarted them. Issenberg said Democrats developed a more cooperative political consultant community that the Republicans have yet to replicate.

For Reed, 51, the tools are new but the goal remains the same as it was when he was canvassing for Ronald Reagan at the University of Georgia in 1980.

Reed was a GOP wunderkind tapped by Pat Robertson to be executive director of the Christian Coalition in 1989. He built the organization into a conservative force that attracted then-President George H.W. Bush to its convention and in 1996 had a $27 million budget.

“Ralph made the Christian Coalition,” said Richard Land, the longtime public policy advocate for the Southern Baptist Convention. “He’s got a Ph.D. in political science and he was paying attention in class. And he’s got a genius for understanding how to organize and how to talk to and how to connect with the grass-roots.”

Reed left in 1997 to run his own consulting firm in Atlanta, as the Federal Elections Commission had begun investigating whether the Christian Coalition had broken campaign finance law by advocating for specific candidates. The Coalition paid $45,000 to settle the case in 2000. By then its fundraising and influence had diminished considerably.

Joel D. Vaughan, a former top Coalition staffer who wrote a book about the rise and fall of the organization, said the group faced infighting and financial problems, and losing Reed’s leadership was a factor in its decline.

Reed moved on to become the director of the Georgia Republican Party and help the 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush presidential campaigns. He tried his own hand at political office, running for Georgia lieutenant governor in 2006, but his candidacy was dealt a major blow by the unfolding scandal involving Washington superlobbyist Jack Abramoff’s swindling of Native American tribes.

Revelations from emails between Reed and Abramoff proved to be more embarrassing than criminal — Reed was never charged — as they showed Reed was being funded by casino interests as he spoke out against gambling. Casey Cagle won the Republican primary race handily.

“The Abramoff thing derailed his attempt to be lieutenant governor and tarnished him a little bit, and I think he sort of licked his wounds a little bit after that and concentrated on making money,” said Peter Montgomery, who researches the religious conservative movement for the liberal People for the American Way Foundation.

Reed’s return to the national stage with the Faith and Freedom Coalition came at a humbling point for Republicans after their 2008 losses. His organization quickly found a common cause with the rising tea party. Along with tea party influenced organizations such as Americans For Prosperity — which is backed by the billionaire Koch family and run by Tim Phillips, who co-founded a consulting firm with Reed — FFC worked to mobilize voters on behalf of Republicans in key races such as the 2010 midterms.

By 2011 FFC’s candidate forums became must-attend events for Republican presidential hopefuls. Montgomery said Reed’s followers are willing to overlook his past flirtations with scandal in order to win.

“Reed has always been this kind of ruthless political organizer,” Montgomery said, noting that Reed once spoke of the Christian Coalition’s political foes ending up in body bags. “In some ways that kind of ruthless attention to the end goal makes him a perfect fit for today’s Republican Party.”

Reed said the FFC had about 60 paid staffers across the country as of last month, though it will staff up in the critical final weeks. A spokeswoman said FFC plans to raise and spend between $10 million and $12 million this year.

In addition to the targeting technology, which Reed said is primarily purchased from outside vendors, the organization is focused on old-fashioned techniques. Last week in Las Vegas, FFC Nevada Chairman Chuck Warren described voter registration protocol to about 60 activists munching on finger food in a casino conference room.

“The technology has changed,” Warren said in an interview. But Reed “also understands at the end of the day this is still a shoe-leather business.”

Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, a longtime friend of Reed’s who also was tied to the Abramoff scandal, said Reed is an important bridge between religious leaders and GOP political insiders.

“He keeps focused on winning elections, and sometimes some guys in the social conservative movement focus on being the most pure guy in the room, as if one was awarded brownie points or gold stars for having taken out the most extreme virtuous position imaginable,” Norquist said.

He added, “Ralph focuses on what works and not on moral preening. And the guys who think of themselves as social conservative leaders want you to know how correct they are on the issues, at which point you go: ‘OK, now what?’”

Vaughan said the Christian Coalition would sometimes get push-back for such a stance, as when it declined to support an anti-abortion third party candidate over pro-choice Republican Tom Ridge in his 1994 run for governor of Pennsylvania.

“It’s important to realize you’re not electing a pastor, you’re electing someone who can provide good government,” Vaughan said.

This year, the top goal for FFC is electing Romney, a man who has not always been cozy with conservatives. But Reed praises Romney’s bona fides on all the issues that matter to his group. The target voters for the mix of moral and economic passion have been dubbed “teavangelicals.”

“We unapologetically believe that you can’t fix what ails the economy without fixing what ails the culture and the family,” Reed said. “And that’s really our message. We uniquely deliver that message, and we deliver it better than anyone else.”