Introducing Victory Lab, a new Slate column. During the 2012 race, Sasha Issenberg will explore the secret science driving political campaigns, and the tactics—rather than the strategies—that will determine who wins.
Mitt Romney has decided to go all-in to win Iowa, based on the assumption that even after five years of campaigning in the state there is still room for his support to grow. Romney will have to add as many as 8,000 voters to the number he won in 2008—enlisting those who backed other candidates last time, have remained undecided this year, or are altogether new to caucusing. Polls have shown Romney’s support in Iowa to be amazingly steady since his second-place finish to Mike Huckabee—even as his opponents have changed and he has recalibrated his pitch to run now as a CEO candidate uninterested in picking fights about cultural issues—and the campaign’s private research suggests the demographic profile of a Romney backer has remained constant over those four years as well. Romney’s new Des Moines campaign office knows the names of many of the 29,949 Iowans who voted for him last time. The challenge now is to sort through the other 100,000 or so people who are likely to caucus, many of whom polls show remain up for grabs, and figure out which ones they can win over.
The first hurdle for any political targeter is deciding who to leave out of such an effort. Talking to the wrong people costs money—Romney spent $10 million to be runner-up in Iowa last time—and it risks motivating an opponent’s lukewarm supporters to take the race more seriously. But Romney is not just any candidate. He is already well-known among Republican primary voters and has one characteristic that might prevent many voters from ever being open to considering him. Can Romney’s team distinguish which Iowans have withheld their support because they’re not sure he’s the best candidate from those who refuse to vote for him because he’s a Mormon?
Many of Romney’s advisers suspect that, in his last campaign, they underestimated the trouble the candidate’s faith would cause him in Iowa. Research showed that there were widespread doubts about Mormonism, but Romney’s team believed that if they introduced him as a good, moral family man who had thrived in mainstream American institutions—Harvard, the corporate suite, the Olympics, the political culture of a blue state far from Temple Square—many of the doubters would come around to accepting him, regardless of theological differences. (This idea was in a way inspired by traditional inter-group theory: that to know someone is to like, or at least accept, their group. Only half of Americans say they personally know a Mormon.) After losses in Iowa and South Carolina, the Romney team began to see voters’ attitudes not as a temporary block but the manifestation of a firm, unyielding bigotry. “There are some people for who it will not be settled,” Romney told me last spring. “A lot of people have differing views.”
That sounded at the time like the resignation of a man unable to peer within other men’s souls, but these days, Romney seems to talk about the challenge presented by his faith in less mystical terms. When asked last week by Fox News’ Bret Baier about anti-Mormon attitudes, Romney conceded they would “have some impact in a narrow group of individuals”—and the choice of words was telling. By fusing unconventional polling approaches increasingly popular among political scientists and predictive-modeling techniques used within campaigns, Romney should be able to pinpoint anti-Mormon voters—and remove them one by one from his list of Iowa targets. What’s more, he can do this without ever talking to these voters directly.
Voters seem perfectly comfortable telling pollsters they don’t support Mitt Romney. In fact, three-quarters of them do so in nearly every poll. They’re also more comfortable admitting a bias against Mormon candidates than toward a candidate from another other demographic minority. When asked directly this year by Gallup, 22 percent of voters said no to the question “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be Mormon, would you vote for that person?” Even as the shares of voters unwilling to back a black, Jew, Catholic, or woman have shrunk over the years, the anti-Mormon figure has remained effectively unchanged since the question was first asked in 1967, when Romney’s father, George, announced a presidential campaign.
But might anti-Mormon sentiment actually be even higher still? Pollsters have little confidence that voters answer such questions about bias candidly. Through the 1980s, pre-election surveys were repeatedly undercut by the so-called Bradley effect, in which voters—apparently self-conscious about being seen as racist—lie to callers, overstating a minority candidate’s support. The fear that Barack Obama would fall victim to such deception bedeviled Democrats throughout 2008, so they looked for ways to measure what political scientists call “implicit attitudes”—socially acceptable views that can serve as a proxy for darker ones.
In late 2007, the Ohio Democratic Party set out to design a model to predict which voters in the state would be good targets for the party ticket. The presidential primary was unsettled, and many Democrats thought the complexion of their coalition could change depending on whether Obama or Hillary Clinton was the nominee. They needed to identify those Ohioans who might support a generic Democratic candidate, but would hold back if that nominee were a woman or an Black person. Party operatives convened focus groups to feel around for questions where a voter’s response could work as a tell, and then used polling to see which questions and answers actually correlated with a how a person chose to vote. Ultimately, Ohio Democrats developed two oblique poll questions: “Do you agree we were better off as a society when women were expected to stay home and men were expected to make a living?” and “Do you think sometimes African-Americans overestimate the impacts of discrimination?”
The party conducted a massive survey, far larger than the typical media poll, asking voters the questions and identifying—across hundreds of granular variables—the characteristics of the people who said yes to one or both of them. Algorithms then churned through databases full of personal information to look for patterns that matched other attitudes, behaviors, or demographic traits. The result was a prediction—for every Ohio voter—about whether he or she, too, would answer yes to each question. After the primary, the Clinton and Obama campaigns returned their lists of identified supporters to the party, and analysts saw that their predictions had been largely borne out: Those who believed in old-fashioned gender roles had been less likely to back the female candidate and those suspicious of racial-discrimination claims withheld support from the black candidate.
Is there a similar “implicit attitudes” question about Mormonism that has such predictive power across the electorate? It’s not clear. Both academics and political operatives have spent far less time taking the measure of anti-Mormon public opinion than attitudes on race, but public-opinion research suggests that different voters have vastly different reasons for distrusting members of the Church of Latter-day Saints in high office. While pundits may dwell on statistics showing that a majority of evangelicals respond negatively when public polls ask “Is Mormonism a Christian religion?” such answers illuminate little about vote choice. (Judaism is not a Christian religion, and it is easy to imagine Eric Cantor winning evangelical votes.) At the same time, polls show resistance to electing a Mormon president is robust among liberals, too; non-evangelicals could resent the faith’s cultural traditionalism, a matter that is completely unrelated to whether it is a Christian religion.
Researchers have recently found another way to go about this, one that is even more sensitive to respondents who might want to hide bias and does not rely on proxy concerns or coded issues. In the late 1990s, a pair of Harvard political scientists probing opinions about affirmative action worried that few people would honestly answer a pollster’s questions on such a delicate subject. Instead, the researchers turned their surveys into an experiment, randomly dividing their sample into two groups. Each group of subjects was provided with a list of statements and asked merely to identify how many they agree with, rather than having to weigh in on specific statements directly. One group’s list would include an extra, “target” item—“I don’t approve of affirmative action,” say. Then researchers would compare the responses of each group, and attribute the difference in the number of statements chosen to the presence of the target item.
In the fall of 2008, Rutgers political scientist David Redlawsk, along with former University of Iowa colleagues Caroline J. Tolbert and William Franko, added such a list experiment to polls in the hopes of capturing hidden bias against Obama’s candidacy on the basis of his race. “Some people will vote for Barack Obama this fall and some people will not,” a survey-taker told nearly 1,400 respondents. “Regardless of your overall feelings toward him, please indicate how many of the following four facts about Obama trouble you when you think about choosing the next president. I should add, too, that we are not interested in which ones trouble you, only how many.” Everyone in Redlawsk’s sample heard four sentences, in randomized order:
1. “During the primary campaign, he described small-town Pennsylvanians as ‘bitter’ and said that they ‘cling’ to guns and religion.”
2. “He has served in the US Senate only since 2005.”
3. “He used to be a smoker.”
4. “He was a member of Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ for 20 years, before he resigned in May of 2008.”
Half of Redlawsk’s sample heard another sentence, which he considered the target item: “If elected, he will be the first black president.” White voters in the control group, which heard only the first four items, agreed with an average of 1.71 of these statements, those in the treatment group, which heard five, agreed with an average of 2.04. The difference between the two groups, Redlawsk concluded, surfaced an otherwise submerged bias: 33 percent of white voters had tacitly acknowledged they would be troubled by Obama being the first black president. (Academics have lodged minor methodological quarrels with the list-experiment technique, noting that the process can confuse respondents and requires the survey-taker to perfectly calibrate a list of items where most people will agree to some, but not all of them. If it is all or none, respondents could feel that their views on the target item are no longer masked.)
When it comes to the Mormon question, list experiments have shown that bias may be hidden in surprising places. This year, the left-leaning Public Religion Research Institute added a list experiment to its annual American Values Survey. Here the target item was “a Mormon becoming president of the United States” as something that might worry or bother a respondent. They asked the question directly, too. Among white evangelicals, the numbers were essentially interchangeable: 47 percent state their concern about a Mormon president when asked directly, while 49 percent did so through a list experiment.
But among white mainline Protestants—widely assumed to be the more moderate voters who comprise a winning primary coalition for Romney—only 30 percent declared their concern about a Mormon becoming president when they were asked about it. When they participated in the list experiment, however, 57 percent identified such a worry. In other words, more than one-quarter of white mainline Protestants wouldn’t publicly acknowledge a bias likely to affect their vote.
Romney’s advisers are familiar with the value of list experiments. Target Point Consulting, a Virginia firm that has crunched numbers for Romney’s campaigns since 2002, administered list experiments in 2008 when it was working on John McCain’s behalf during the general election. The goal was to measure for bias among independent voters against McCain, based on his age, and Obama, based on his race.
The Romney campaign won’t discuss its statistical methods, or how it targeted the pieces of direct mail it delivered in Iowa in recent weeks. But it should be possible to build a list experiment into its microtargeting polls in much the same way that Ohio Democrats added oblique questions about race and gender. The results could be used to model the characteristics of anti-Mormon voters with far more detail and complexity than just “white mainline Protestant,” and then sift through the state voter file to produce a list of other Iowans who statistically resemble them. A Romney adviser would say only that “I think we have what we need to make good decisions about who to talk to.” To do that, they will need to figure out whom to avoid.