There was no shortage of hotly contested political races in the 2012 election. Ranging from the historic presidential election down to the regional races, the 2012 political campaigns certainly had their hands full.
Of the handful of battleground states that play a key role in the presidential elections, Nevada has certainly demonstrated that title. In 2000 and 2004 the presidential polls showed Republican victories, but in 2008 and in 2012, the state began to lean Democrat. Particularly in Nevada’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes Eastern and Northwestern Las Vegas and Henderson, the race between Republicans and Democrats has been fierce. In 2008, incumbent Rep. Jon Porter (R) was ousted by Dina Titus (D), who was then defeated in 2010 by Joe Heck(R) by a margin of 0.6%. In 2012, the Joe Heck campaign, headed by Mark Ciavola, managed to pull a victory by a margin of over 7%.
This article presents an interview with Mr. Ciavola to discuss his campaign strategies and how they factored into the 2012 Republican victory in Nevada’s 3rd congressional district. Mark Ciavola is the campaign manager for Heck, and oversaw the 2010 and the 2012 campaigns, both of which ended in Republican victory. He is also the chairman of the College Republican Federation of Nevada and the student body president of University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is the founder of Right Pride, a conservative organization which spreads the message of limited government and the free market throughout the gay community.
Dartmouth Business Journal (DBJ): What were your initial thoughts coming into this campaign?
Mark Ciavola (MC): Well, let me give you a little background. In 2010, we did only win by 0.6%, but it’s important to know that the Democrats actually had a 26,000 voter advantage, versus a 7,000 voter advantage this time, and so it was actually a much more favorable district this time (There are currently 335,413 active registered voters in District 3.) The fact that Congressman Heck won in 2010, given a sizeable Democratic voter edge, really was a testament to how hard the campaign worked then and how hard Congressman Heck worked then, because again 26,000 votes is a lot to overcome. This time around, with 7,000, we thought we would be in a very good position to be able to do well regardless of how well President Obama did or Governor Romney did. But we knew that it would come down to grassroots and counting every single vote and making sure we turn out as many Republicans as possible. I never doubted for a minute that we would win, and I think that most of us on the campaign felt that we would not have a problem winning by 3 to 5 points.
DBJ: So during the campaign, what was your strategy to get those necessary votes?
MC: Well, the first strategy is the standard, which is to contact voters. We wanted to make as many phone calls and door knocks as possible. We actually made over half a million phone calls and a quarter million door knocks. When you’re able to contact 750,000 voters, you’re putting yourself in a good position, and that was part of it. We also knew that we didn’t have the budget to hire a lot of staff, so we made an aggressive attempt to get as many interns as we possibly could. As it turned out, we had 29 interns in total and really, without the interns, we wouldn’t have been able to do the voter contact that we ended up doing. And then, for the “get out the vote” in the general [election] during early voting, we implemented a grassroots strategy that actually put together 140 volunteers who adopted their own neighborhoods and focused on getting out around 100 voters that lived near them. By doing that, here we are in a district with a 7,000 Democrat advantage, and we actually won early voting by 12,500 votes.
DBJ: As the campaign manager for Joe Heck, what do you feel was your greatest strength, and how did you use that to your advantage?
MC: Our greatest strength was undoubtedly our candidate. Congressman Heck is a great guy, he works hard, and he knows the issues. He’s probably the most accessible politician in Nevada. He also has a résumé that perfectly matches the issues our country is facing. Obviously, the economy, jobs; he’s a former small business owner. Health care is a huge issue right now, and he’s a doctor. He’s a former educator, and education is a huge issue. [Another issue is] being able to work in Washington and get legislative priorities accomplished, and he’s a former legislator. And of course national security and the wars we are fighting. He’s got a 25 year career in the military. His résumé perfectly aligns with everything that’s going on. Plus, we went out of our way to make sure that he was out at as many events as possible, meeting as many voters as possible, speaking with various groups, grassroots organizations, coalition-type groups. When you have a candidate that good, you want to get him out.
DBJ: What was your greatest difficulty during the campaign, and how did you overcome it?
MC: The greatest difficulty was overcoming the narrative that Democrats put forward: that Republicans are rich, white racists engaging in the “War on Women.” I feel that we were able to overcome it by focusing on getting our message out to those groups, forming strong coalitions like Women for Heck, Unidos con Heck, and being firm in confronting the blatantly false statements made by our opponent.
DBJ: Though your campaign was highly successful, is there anything you would have done differently?
MC: Well, I try not to be results-oriented, because obviously when you win, you like to think you wouldn’t change a thing. There are always things we can improve on. I think that we could have had a stronger social media presence. I think we could have maybe better anticipated our voter contact needs so that we would have a system in place that could handle what we did. Toward the end, we were running out of phones and running out of ways for people to help. You want to make sure that you can do more if you can. Honestly, I think went very well. I think we were fortunate in a lot of areas. I think that we avoided a lot of big mistakes. The staff worked tremendously hard, Tom [McAllister] and Ken [Minster] were amazing. The interns were great, from the ones who left us in August to the ones who stayed right through the end. Our volunteers were great. We were the #2 Republican victory office in the country. I think that it’s really hard to pinpoint some things, certainly nothing major. I mean we pretty much did it by the book and avoided those big mistakes.
DBJ: So as the number two Republican victory office, what lessons does your campaign’s success have to offer to other campaigns that maybe weren’t so successful?
MC: Well, I think that first and foremost, it starts in the neighborhoods, and I think that we can’t forget that. We can do as many neighborhood walks as we want, but unless the person that’s doing those walks lives in that neighborhood and is following up with those people, I’m not sure it’s any more effective than sending them a mail piece, which does work, but knocking on doors is supposed to be more personal. I think that you really have to be able to have a good grasp on your database. I think you need to know where your voters are. We targeted 50 precincts where our voters are, and that’s who we turned out. When Clark County turns out to early voting at 57%, but our voters turn out at 75%, that makes all the difference in the world. I think that if you have that neighborhood focus with actual precinct and block captains–or the way we did it, with a giant volunteer troop that were assigned their neighborhoods– it becomes more personal, there’s more accountability. You have more touches because that person can visit that house five or six times during the election cycle, and certainly make sure that each individual person that they’ve identified as being a Republican voter or someone who is voting Republican actually gets out to vote. And I think that’s incredibly important because we don’t have phone numbers for everyone, but we do have addresses. If we can maximize those efforts, then we win the ground game. And for a long time the Democrats have won the ground game, and that’s where their strength is. We have got to beat them where their strengths lie.
DBJ: Do you have any final thoughts?
MC: In 2010, we won when the Harry Reid (D) and Sharron Angle (R) race didn’t go Republican, and this year we won when the Presidential race didn’t go Republican. Look back at how things have come down, I have to say there is a direct correlation between how hard the campaigns are working, how hard they are dedicated to success, and the outcome of the election. What I’ve witnessed on two Joe Heck campaigns is hundreds of people who have given their blood, sweat, and tears every minute of the day. And that’s what you need to have a winning team. You’ve got to fill it winners, and we’ve been very fortunate to have been able to do that.