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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Meyers and Gage had noticed something similar from their office in Virginia, along with a small team that had been convened at Romney’s Boston headquarters to bring some of the targeting and analytics work in-house. They were launching regular flights of thousands of automated ID calls, recordings that invited recipients to signal their support for a candidate, likelihood of voting, and issue concerns. The automated ID calls fed back into the microtargeting database, and gave the algorithms updated information about where voters stood. The variables that were playing a crucial role in predicting who would support Romney—higher income and education levels, living in the suburbs, subscribing to magazines that suggested an interest in culture and history—were pointing volunteer callers to the same type of people they had targeted last time. Romney people were still Romney people.

The campaign was so confident that its 2008 predictions, updated for 2012, successfully tracked Romney’s supporters that it didn’t even spend $35,000 for the state party’s caucus list, usually the standard guide to finding likely voters. Instead, as they looked for ways to expand their pool of targets, Romney’s advisers turned to a precinct analysis of the 2010 Iowa gubernatorial primary. Former governor Terry Branstad had defeated religious-conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, a race whose structure —a pro-business establishment moderate against an insurgency fueled by religious fervor and Tea Party enthusiasms—resembled the one Romney’s advisers anticipated two years later. Romney’s team identified strong Branstad areas and made lists of Republicans who turned out for the primary but had skipped the 2008 caucuses. Those voters became Romney persuasion targets, too, and the microtargeting algorithms started working on figuring out what issues would most drive them.

Romney advisers looked on uneasily as opponents rose and fell to challenge their candidate’s place at the front of the caucus. Their microtargeting calls were also building models of Iowans who looked likely to support each of Romney’s opponents. When Romney was the second choice of another candidate’s soft supporters—as was often the case with backers of Gingrich and Perry—his campaign gingerly added them as persuasion targets, too.

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There were two candidates, however, whose supporters Romney’s team would not be able to clearly measure. The targeters grouped together Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum because “there really wasn't any data to back up which if either of them would be players at the end,” as a Romney adviser put it. Besides, their voters were coming from the same demographic pool, and seemed likely to move only from one to the other. “We try to be pretty cognizant of who we might be able to peel off,” says Meyers. “We weren’t too interested in turning a Bachmann voter into a Santorum voter or vice versa.”

Instead of trying to win over potential Romney voters with broadcast or online ads, conspicuous direct mail, or cultivating media coverage, the campaign used a new tool to narrowly target potential 2012 voters. So-called tele-town halls would ring an individual voter’s phone with a recorded message inviting him or her to participate in a conference call with the candidate. When a voter chose to participate, an automated prompt would ask for the same information that would be solicited by volunteer ID calls: who a voter supported, how likely they were to caucus. Romney’s team was able to put together different universes for each. Supporters would be invited to “friends and allies” calls (in one, Romney assuaged those made uneasy about attacks on his health care record). Persuasion targets who were modeled to care about the economy were invited to hear Romney introduce his jobs plan; those concerned about immigration were alerted to a call with Arizona sheriff Paul Babeu, a Romney surrogate.

The tele-town halls proved popular—often tens of thousands of voters would listen in—and, at only pennies each, fused a persuasive medium like a radio ad or a candidate visit with the ability of automated survey calls to measure response. Most of the Republican caucus campaigns used these tele-town halls to inexpensively reach voters spread out geographically, but they had a particular value to Romney as he tried to add voters who hadn’t been with him in 2008. The tele-town halls allowed him to make his case to targeted groups of Iowans on specific issues without raising media alerts that he was aggressively contesting the state.

On caucus day, Romney’s staff was confident in their vote count, although aware that they had dramatically underestimated turnout four years earlier in a way that made their counts irrelevant to projecting the outcome. But even this time, Romney had an advantage over rivals who hadn’t competed before in Iowa: The campaign had ranked the state’s 1,774 precincts into five tiers based on which ones would offer the best return-on-investment to Romney. The highest tiers were the ones that had produced the most votes for Romney and Branstad, and it was there the campaign first worked to enlist precinct leaders: A volunteer representative who speaks publicly on the campaign’s behalf and is authorized, under caucus rules, to observe the vote-counting. Romney’s campaign set up a phone center in Des Moines for those precinct leaders to call in with the local returns—so he could maintain his own statewide count in case of irregularities or a close race.

Romney’s team got that close race, and after the caucus results were counted his advisers appeared a bit shocked that Santorum had emerged in the last two weeks to come within eight votes of their total. But that might not have been the most revealing margin of the night. Romney closed out his Iowa campaign with 30,015 votes, six fewer than the number that resigned him to second place in 2008. Four years later, he was still stuck at 25 percent, but he left the state a winner.

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