Anatomy of a Narrow Victory: How Romney’s Canny Iowa Strategy Paid Off

The new science of winning campaigns.
Jan. 4 2012 11:15 AM

Anatomy of a Narrow Victory

Five years in the making, Romney’s Iowa win took a lot more than money.

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Predicting candidate support in primaries is incredibly difficult. In general elections, party registration and a precinct’s historical voting behavior offer a reliable guide for individual support, but primaries have little such structure. The candidates are ideologically similar, few self-evident demographic distinctions separate their coalitions, and historical precedents are usually too messy to be helpful. Particularly in Iowa, where Republican caucus turnout had always been under 100,000—and the state party will sell a list of those past attendees to candidates for $35,000—campaigns have traditionally set out to identify the entire universe of likely caucus-goers and ask them individually whom they support and what they care about.

In the spring of 2007, Meyers and Gage commissioned a large-sample survey of Iowa Republicans to match voter attributes with topical political opinions so that algorithms could look for unexpected relationships between them. At the time, Romney wasn’t well-known, so the campaign saw plenty of room to grow the candidate’s support. To find promising targets among the uncommitted, voters in the polling sample were asked for the issue that most concerned them. Romney’s advisers then cherry-picked a few issues that spoke either to one of their strengths or to an opponent’s weakness—jobs and the economy on one hand, gay marriage or guns on the other—to create a statistical profile of the voters who shared those concerns. Then algorithms searched an Iowa database TargetPoint had built to pick out other voters in the state who shared a common profile and appeared targetable on those same issues.

With the idea that a win in Iowa would propel him on to victory in New Hampshire, Romney had built a formidable machine in the state to count voters. The campaign hired consultants and 10 regional field directors, who identified their most active volunteers and bestowed upon them official campaign titles and stipends of $500 per month. “People in Iowa were starting to get paid for things they were used to doing for free,” says David Roederer, a state official who chaired John McCain’s Iowa campaign in 2008 and remained neutral this time.

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Romney’s Iowa staff triaged the electorate based on their micro-targeting research. Republicans who showed no interest in caucusing—or looked unlikely to back their candidate—were pushed off Romney’s lists for good. Those who appeared persuadable received flights of mail and phone calls on the issues they were predicted to care about. Those who declared themselves Romney supporters were offered a trip to the Ames straw poll in August.

Romney’s staff presided over an aggressive effort to both monitor the supporters and keep nudging the persuadables. Field organizers managed phone banks where volunteers would place calls to identify voters’ leanings (known as ID calls), registering the results onto bubble sheets by hand and then scanning them digitally. Volunteers would patrol the doors of Romney’s events to ensure attendees filled out cards identifying them as supporters. All of that information was fed back into TargetPoint’s databases to refine the quality of its predictions. When Meyers and Gage conducted another round of survey calls in the fall, they found a growing base of Romney supporters. The microtargeting algorithms picked out other Iowans who looked like those supporters, generating new lists of promising targets for volunteers to call.

By caucus day four years ago, Romney’s team had a count of more than 50,000 voters, compiled through either individual contacts or through microtargeting models. Campaign strategists didn’t think they’d ever get that many votes: Some of those voters had been last reached months earlier, and might have moved on to other candidates. But Romney’s advisers dramatically underestimated turnout, which hit a record of nearly 120,000 in large part to a wave of irregular caucus-goers pulled in by the winner, Mike Huckabee. “We got the number we thought we were going to get. The other guy got more,” says Meyers, who concedes an underestimation of the ability of a candidate to change the electorate as a major tactical error in the 2008 caucuses. “There were more people we could have gotten out that we didn’t.”

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Last May, Romney visited Iowa for a day of meetings and events, his first trip to the state during the 2012 campaign. Media coverage fixated on the idea that Romney had retreated from a state where he had sunk millions on a tragic second-place finish in 2007, and had yet to decide whether he would ever muster the wherewithal to try again. “This year, there are no commercials, no bulging payroll, and no headquarters at all,” The New York Times reported. “And he has yet to signal whether he will treat Iowa with deference (as he did in 2008) or indifference (as some advisers have urged him to do).”

But a crowd showed up at a Cedar Rapids barn for an evening picnic nonetheless. “We all looked at each other and said, ‘Oh, you’re still on Team Romney?’ ” says Renee Schulte, a mental-health therapist who had been one of Romney’s four paid volunteers in Linn County in 2008. She has since been elected to the state legislature and named one of Romney’s state co-chairs for the second race. As she reunited with her fellow Romney boosters, she realized that many had been lured there because of a targeted activity invisible to media coverage: a robocall to the thousands of people the campaign had identified as supporters in Linn and Johnson counties in 2008, offering an invitation to reconnect with the erstwhile candidate.

Schulte began reassembling her team of local volunteers. This time there were no titles or stipends, and there was little need for phone banks or offices. A two-person campaign staff supplied names and numbers of supporters who had been identified or modeled as supporters in 2008. And this time, volunteers didn’t have to leave their homes to call them and log their responses: A web-based tool automatically registered voters’ responses with no need for scanners or staffers to manage a paper flow. They called former Romney supporters, and realized—despite a reordered set of national priorities, a different field of opponents, and a change in posture on Romney’s part from culture warrior to corporate technocrat—voter sympathies had not much shifted. “As we started ID’ing people,” says Schulte, “we realized there weren’t a lot of people who had moved.”