‘Nobody’s home,” says Michael Fields, the 28-year-old state director of the Colorado chapter of Americans for Prosperity. On this sunny Saturday morning in mid-July, we’re walking through a residential neighborhood in Greenwood Village, a wealthy suburb in Arapahoe County. It’s the perfect day for a hike near the mountains or a dip in the pool, which may explain why Fields is greeted with silence at nearly every door he knocks on.
Undeterred, he and two other AFP activists navigate the streets with Google Maps, hoping to find one person willing to take the brief survey queued on their iPads. Every unanswered door receives a hanging flyer and input into an iPad: “Not home.” On the rare occasion a voter does emerge to talk, the activists can only get about two questions off: Do you support Obamacare? And do you support the state’s taxpayer bill of rights provision that requires voter approval for every state and local tax hike? The answers are punched into the system, too. Then it’s back to the map to find the next house.
Meanwhile, at a nearby field office, other volunteers are calling potential survey-takers on the phone, with about the same success rates as those out in the streets. It’s common to have someone hang up before the volunteer can even say her name. Elderly folks on the other end think the callers are trying to sell them something. One volunteer ends the last of several short calls in a row with an apology and a promise to take the caller off AFP’s list. None of it’s glamorous, but all this political grunt work in the middle of 2015, AFP officials say, is preparing the organization and its 35 state chapters for their biggest battle yet: 2016.
Americans for Prosperity is the flagship political organization of libertarian billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. AFP spent $122 million in 2012, more than in its eight previous years of existence combined, and $77 million in the 2014 midterm elections, a lot of it on TV advertising. The New York Times reported in January that the Koch brothers told their large network of fellow donors they plan to raise and spend nearly $900 million on political advocacy during the 2016 election cycle. While AFP won’t disclose their 2016 budget, it’s likely to be a sizable chunk of that $900 million.
After being outgunned by President Obama’s Organizing for America (OFA) and other left-wing political action committees in the run-up to the 2012 election, conservative groups struggled to figure out how to reform their campaign operations for 2014 and beyond. Some, like the Chamber of Commerce, focused on backing higher-quality Senate candidates and played a role in GOP primaries. The Republican National Committee conducted a lengthy “autopsy” of the 2012 loss that concluded the party needed to rebrand itself, revamp its messaging, and restructure its data operation. For AFP, which rose to prominence as a sort of institutional manifestation of the Tea Party movement, success in 2016 means investing heavily in building permanent grassroots operations in battleground states. Which, officials say, is exactly what they’ve been doing.
In swing states like Colorado, there’s already evidence of investment. AFP has five field offices, three in the Denver area and one each in Colorado Springs and Fort Collins. Every activist, down to the brand-new volunteer, is armed with a cheap flip-phone and an iPad loaded with the Koch-funded voter database platform i360. (Activists can also make phone calls from their own homes, on their own devices.) Volunteers can expect free food and beverages between canvassing trips, as well as AFP-branded hats, T-shirts, and other swag. But AFP is also beefing up personnel. In addition to Fields, the state director, Colorado’s chapter has more than 20 full-time staff members, including a deputy state director and 7 field directors in different regions of the state, along with several part-time staffers and an ever-growing pool of volunteers.
What are all these people doing, more than a year before the 2016 election? Lots of phone calls and door-to-door canvassing to target a curated list of “persuadables”—not hardcore Republicans or Democrats but people who might vote and might be willing to support policies and candidates in line with the group’s small-government, pro-free-market philosophy. This year, at least, AFP’s activism focuses on local issues, particularly education. In Jefferson County, the second-largest school district in the state, recall petitions for three conservative school-board members are gathering steam. AFP activists there are working to educate voters about the benefits of school-choice reforms passed by the board, and its door-to-door canvassers and phone bankers ask specific survey questions about those reforms.