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.

Mitt Romney in Iowa.
What went into Romney's Iowa win?

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

DES MOINES—On Monday night, 24 hours before Iowans would participate in their state’s caucuses, around 25 volunteers sat in an old Blockbuster Video and placed calls from their personal cellphones on behalf of Mitt Romney. They had the trappings of a Romney crowd—oxford shirts, small talk concerning fruit salad—and the names of the voters on their list were of Romney people, too. “The reason I’m calling is because I have you down as a supporter,” the callers chimed, reading off a get-out-the-vote script.

Sasha Issenberg Sasha Issenberg

Sasha Issenberg is the author of The Victory Lab about the new science of political campaigns.

This fluid caucus season has birthed and vanquished new front-runners—Gallup calls it the “most volatile” nominating contest ever polled—but there has been one constant in Iowa: a list of more than 30,000 supporters that Romney’s team believed were unlikely to vote for any of his rivals. The process that produced this list had taken nearly five years to complete. Romney’s previous Iowa campaign allowed him to stockpile voter data and develop sophisticated systems for interpreting it. It was that data and those interpretations that supported one of the riskiest strategic moves of the campaign thus far: Romney’s seemingly late decision to fight aggressively for his first-place finish in Iowa.

Even as his campaign leadership claimed into the fall that they were keeping their options open here, Romney’s targeters were quietly maintaining a continuous tally of their supporters in Iowa, a list that proved unexpectedly stable even as other candidates rose and fell in the polls. It had become a stock observation to note that Mitt Romney just couldn’t move from 25 percent in Iowa—his support was both resistant to growth and impervious to decay. But what was more important for Romney’s team was not just that his total share of the vote remained steady but that the individual voters who comprised it didn’t move either, making it easy to keep track of who they were and to mobilize them personally.

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It was the ability to pinpoint and track supporters that settled Romney’s decision to publicly commit to winning Iowa late this fall. Romney’s campaign made a big show of converting the former video store into a headquarters, while spending millions on local television ads and dispatching the candidate to travel the state more aggressively than he had. But a ruthless yet largely invisible strategy had already been in place for much of the year, tracking both Romney’s supporters and his opponents. Only when Romney’s count appeared to exceed any rival’s did advisers unveil the trappings of a traditional caucus campaign.

“We had a fair picture of the people who were sticking with us,” says David Kochel, Romney’s top Iowa strategist. “It is a significant enough share to give us good confidence that we would have a respectable base.”

In the end, Romney was able to carry the caucuses without assembling much of the heavy apparatus the media typically validate as a “ground game” or “organization”—the congeries of campaign offices, phone banks, field staffers, and phalanxes of volunteers—whose primary objective for much of the pre-caucus season is to maintain a dynamic census of potential caucus-goers. Romney maintained that census through statistical work and new technology, all built on having survived a dry run four years ago in which a profligate Romney spent $10 million on an embarrassing second-place finish.

Confident in what his data was telling him about his chances in the caucuses, Romney spent his final days in the state this year quoting from patriotic songs while rarely drawing any contrasts with his opponents.

“We weren’t as concerned with persuasion as we were last time,” says Michael Meyers, a data analyst who with his partner Alexander Gage has advised Romney for the past decade. “We spent a lot more time ensuring we could turn our people out.”

Meyers and Gage first worked with Romney on his 2002 campaign for governor of Massachusetts. The two Michigan Republican operatives had grown frustrated with campaign targeting that was restricted by the limited individual information available on the electoral rolls (party registration and vote history) and historical tallies at the precinct level, where actual results are available. Gage noticed that commercial marketers and credit-scorers had begun to organize reams of demographic and consumer data—from information on education levels to who had a hunting license—that made it possible to profile an individual across hundreds of variables at once. A former pollster, he designed large-scale surveys that would allow him to tether those individual profiles to topical political attitudes to reveal patterns in electoral behavior. Advances in computing power had made it possible to manipulate tens of millions of those records at once, and Meyers and Gage let algorithms find relationships between them. Their approach allowed them to analyze voters with far more nuance than had previously been possible. When Gage visited Romney’s Cambridge campaign headquarters with a PowerPoint presentation describing his untested method, a former venture capitalist serving as Romney’s deputy campaign manager spoke up. “You mean you don’t do this in politics?”

Romney won that campaign, aided by Gage’s ability to pick out Massachusetts independents and Democrats who would be receptive to the candidate’s positions on specific issues like taxes and education. That success, along with similar projects for Republican tickets in two other states, helped Meyers and Gage win a lucrative contract to perform such “microtargeting”—as Gage successfully branded the technique—for George W. Bush’s re-election campaign. Bush’s advisers wanted to identify segments of nontraditional Republican voters, like Latino women or church-going African-Americans, who could be pulled over to Bush with targeted appeals. In 2007, Gage’s firm, TargetPoint Consulting, signed on with Romney’s first presidential campaign, and set to work finding friendly caucus-goers in Iowa.

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