On Tuesday, June 23, 2020, 24-year-old Madison Cawthorn won the Republican primary runoff for NC-11, beating Lynda Bennett with 65.82% of the vote. Not only is Cawthorn positioned to become the youngest member of Congress ever in American history, he managed to pull off a resounding win against the “establishment candidate”, backed by Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan, Mark Meadows and President Trump. To find out how Cawthorn beat these seemingly insurmountable odds, the AAPC caught up with some of the strategists who helped engineer his remarkable win: Mike Biundo and Derek Dufresne of RightVoter, working for the Protect Freedom PAC; and Brock McCleary, President of Harper Polling.
How did COVID affect your race? How do you think the pandemic might affect voting in November?
Every race across the country has been impacted by COVID this year to varying degrees. The race in NC-11 was and will continue to be no different. More than ever, it is important to craft a message that resonates with voters and that message needs to be targeted to those who are actually going to mail in an absentee ballot, vote early, or show up to the polls.
It can be expected that the pandemic will certainly have an effect on campaigning, messaging, and even the voting process in November, but the degree will certainly vary by region and even by state. In this more rural North Carolina district, the impact likely will be less than elsewhere in the country, but one should still expect that there will be more voters who seek to vote early or by absentee than normal as a byproduct of COVID.
With the runoff postponed by a month, how did the campaign use this time to their advantage?
Protect Freedom PAC had been monitoring this race, conducted polling, and made a calculated decision that there was a real opportunity for us to get involved and have a serious impact on the outcome.
For us, in this race, the postponed date did not change much other than allowing us more time to develop a plan and execute on it.
How did the campaign view Mark Meadows’ role in the race – as well as other endorsements from nationally-recognized conservatives i.e. Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan, Dave Bossie, etc.?
Endorsements certainly have an impact on a race as a validator for the endorsed candidate (or against the opposing candidate), but issues and a candidate’s likeability still matter a lot to voters. It is easy to forget that and to rest to heavily on support from major endorsements, especially in a primary.
The polling data showed that an endorsement of President Trump for Lynda Bennett could be very impactful for her. However, by early June it became clear that the two candidates had become very well-known and the terms of the debate had been set. So, while primary voters still held President Trump in the highest regard, the race was now a choice between two good Republican candidates, not a referendum on who supported the President more.
Can you tell us about your ground game operation? Did outside groups get involved?
Our group, Protect Freedom PAC, was heavily involved in this race as an outside organization. We focused more on giving the campaign significant cover on television and digital, which allowed the campaign to focus more on their ground game.
Our efforts helped bend the curve on the information flow about Bennett in the campaign. In late May, her information flow was 39% favorable-to-26% unfavorable. Just prior to Election Day, her information flow was 34% favorable-to-43% unfavorable – a 22% swing.
As a byproduct of this, Bennett’s initial 4% advantage with voters who Strongly Approved of President Trump’s job performance flipped to a Cawthorn lead of 15% by Election Day.
How did the campaign overcome the 2-1 fundraising disadvantage against Bennett? As consultants, did is surprise you that a (largely) self-funded candidate won the race?
Cawthorn certainly was the underdog in this race up until the final weeks, but that can be an advantage in a two-way primary. He was hardworking, focused, and put himself into a winnable position that allowed for other outside organizations, like ours, to come in and help close the gap and pull off a win that many did not see coming.
Madison has an inspiring personal story—and we know that voters respond to authenticity. In what ways did the campaign tell his story that you found were most impactful? What moved the “needle” most?
Madison has an amazing story and is a great candidate, which played a major role in him being able to pull off this win. He was relatable and his struggles gave him authenticity. Conservative voters across the country are looking for fresh faces and new leadership in Congress to combat a similar rise in young, charismatic liberal members on the other side of the aisle. Cawthorn fit that mold and was able to capitalize on it.
What surprised you most in this campaign? Least?
The most: Madison Cawthorn showed strong resiliency against attacks from his opponents. His final information flow tracked at 56% favorable-to-23% unfavorable, an excellent more than 2-to-1 ratio.
The least: Madison Cawthorn was able to assemble a winning coalition by bringing together Libertarian voters, Conservative voters, and President Trump’s strongest supporters.
Based on your take-aways from this effort, do you have any advice for other Republican campaigns this November?
Never be over-confident in your candidate or trajectory of victory. Everyone loves an underdog and that should never be underestimated. Especially in a cycle where anything can happen to reshape the landscape of a campaign, it is vital to run as if you’re always two points down even when you think you’re ten points up.
While the survey data predicted a large margin of victory for Cawthorn, the survey responses that were collected through text message solicitation proved to be the most predictive. Cawthorn’s margin of victory among text message respondents was +30%. This provides further evidence that multi-mode data collection for polling is proving more valuable than ever.