DETROIT—Native son Mitt Romney lost this state by nine points in 2012's presidential race. Now, the Republican Party is using Michigan as a laboratory for retooling its ground game, taking lessons from an election that exposed its deficits in voter data, technology and outreach to minorities and young voters.
The Republican National Committee and the state GOP are starting earlier in the election cycle than ever to deploy staff and contact voters. Only four other states—Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin—host as many Republican staffers as Michigan.
Out of 14,000 Republican precinct leaders named nationwide, 2,500 are in Michigan. And only Michigan's state party has created technology that can extract information from the RNC's voter database and add to it in real time, wirelessly, while a campaign worker is on the road.
Trial runs for the amplified field efforts loom in November, when Republican Gov. Rick Snyder faces re-election and a U.S. Senate seat is up for grabs.
A key player in the party makeover is Mr. Romney's niece, Ronna Romney McDaniel, who recently was elected Michigan's national Republican committeewoman. Cheerily dressed in Republican red on a recent Saturday, she urged about a dozen party activists to hunker over new voter-targeting software.
Instead of cold-calling voters and canvassing random neighborhoods, volunteers can use the tool, called MI Dashboard, to build contact lists of their neighbors and Facebook friends. For the November election, the state GOP plans to use MI Dashboard to mobilize 1.4 million reliable Republican voters and identify 300,000 swing voters.
The aim is to make 2014 a prelude to the 2016 presidential election, when Republicans hope to use their new tactics and tools to carry Michigan for the first time since 1988.
"This is going to help us build relationships in our community that are going to help us elect our ticket in 2014 and beyond," Ms. McDaniel told the group as they snacked on pizza at the party office in Ann Arbor last month. "This is a new foundation for our party."
But if Michigan is leading the way, the GOP has a lot of catching up to do.
The technology and tactics promoted by Ms. McDaniel as revolutionary were the foundation of President Barack Obama's wins in 2008 and 2012. While the state and national Republican parties employ 46 staffers in Michigan—twice as many as in previous election cycles—they still have slightly fewer than their Democratic rivals count in the state.
Tactics only go so far. Candidates and message matter, too. In an economically depressed state, and with turnout surging in presidential elections among young people, minorities and college-educated white voters, a GOP looking to overhaul the government safety net has proved to be a tough sell.
"I don't blame Republicans for trying to win the state in 2016, but it's a fool's errand," said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg, who coined the phrase "Reagan Democrats" to describe voters in the Detroit suburbs who helped the GOP carry Michigan in the 1980s. "You can't be a party that's alienating voters and overcome that with organization."
Mr. Romney's deputy campaign manager in 2012, Detroit native Katie Packer Gage, acknowledges the damage done by Democratic attacks that cast Mr. Romney as a greedy plutocrat for opposing the federal government's bailout of the struggling auto industry. But turnout problems also plagued the ticket.
"We did not do as good a job motivating our base, and we're not going to make that mistake again," said Ms. Gage, who is now advising the Michigan GOP.
If Democrats can set their sights on turning Texas blue without a single toehold in state government, Republicans say, why can't they dream of turning Michigan red, especially when the GOP already controls the governor's mansion and both chambers of the Legislature?
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Michigan Republicans got started last summer, converting 10 county party headquarters across the state into year-round field offices with full-time staff. Such "victory centers" typically open in even-numbered years and close after the election. In December, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul presided over the opening of an office in Detroit.
The state party says it has recruited 700 college students to organize their campuses, 950 "rapid response" volunteers to spread the GOP message on social media, and 500 surrogates available to back party stances on issues such as small businesses and veterans affairs.
It is all about "building relationships," Republicans here say, so contacts with voters ideally come from a fellow churchgoer or a neighbor who knows that gun rights and education are dear to that voter.
In the heart of the state's Democratic stronghold lies the RNC's new Detroit office, which is led by former radio talk-show host Wayne Bradley, known as ConservativeBro on Twitter.
Hugs and handshakes are exchanged when Mr. Bradley walks into a barbershop down the street, but interviews with the clientele reflect Mr. Bradley's challenges. William Sewell, 59, said, "A lot of people around here think the Republican Party is for the good ol' boys."
Mr. Bradley isn't deterred. "We're trying to move the bar and get a dialogue started," he said.
The party's goals are more ambitious in the suburbs, where winning the big swing counties of Oakland and Macomb is crucial.
The Oakland County party chairman, Jim Thienel, is a fan of MI Dashboard. On a recent walk, he learned one neighbor's daughter had moved, another neighbor's husband had died, and two others were willing to be precinct captains. Using his smartphone, Mr. Thienel updated the party's voter file wirelessly, house by house.
Rodney Faul, 68, wasn't even listed in the voter file when volunteer Brandon Helderop recently knocked on his door in Macomb County. One of those "Reagan Democrats" so crucial to the GOP's success, Mr. Faul voted Democratic in the 1960s and 1970s, but more recently backed Republicans, including Mr. Romney. "The way things are going, I guess you can put me down as a strong Republican," he said.
Mr. Helderop pulled out his phone and did just that. Then he walked toward the next house on his list.
Write to Beth Reinhard at firstname.lastname@example.org
Corrections & Amplifications
The Republican National Committee's new Detroit office is led by former radio talk-show host Wayne Bradley. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the office is led by Wayne Alexander.