How the Obama Campaign Will Make Life Difficult for Republicans in Michigan on Tuesday

The new science of winning campaigns.
Feb. 27 2012 10:51 AM

Obama’s Michigan Machinations

Cagey tactics that will make life difficult for Republicans on Tuesday.

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Michigan Democrats have a leg up in finding their targets: They enjoy overwhelming numerical advantages in urban and college-town precincts they can mobilize en masse. Republican votes are more dispersed, often coming from working-class whites—like the famous Reagan Democrats whom pollster Stan Greenberg identified in suburban Macomb County—whose social conservatism cannot be easily profiled through the few demographic variables listed in individual voter-registration records or aggregated by census tract. Historically, when they’ve wanted to identify which of Michigan’s 5 million potential voters lean right, Republican organizers have had to contact them one by one, a task that—in a party without union allies or a culture of volunteer organizing—typically demanded costly phone banks or paid canvassers.

In 2001, Michigan Republican Party Executive Director Michael Meyers asked pollster Alex Gage if there was a more efficient way to sort through Michigan’s electorate. By merging available political, demographic, and commercial information with large-scale surveys, Gage was able to develop a statistical model to identify the formative attributes of Republican voters—and then mine the voter rolls to identify others who would make promising targets for the party’s outreach even if they lived in Democratic areas and didn’t participate in Republican primaries. Gage considered his objective to develop the statistical tools to support a “search-and-rescue” operation identifying Republican sympathizers stranded in enemy turf.

Gage was simultaneously advising Mitt Romney’s gubernatorial campaign, and afterward he and Meyers developed a firm, TargetPoint Consulting, whose most prominent client is the former Massachusetts governor. Meyers and Gage now have access to thousands of variables they can include in microtargeting algorithms. But party affiliation and past turnout patterns are still the best single predictors of an individual’s general-election behavior: whether he or she will vote, and for whom.

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Michigan’s voter file has major lacunae when it comes to those variables for its 7.2 million registrants. The 870,000 people who chose to vote in the 2008 Republican primary, in which Romney defeated John McCain, offer a good base for profiling the characteristics of Republican general-election targets. But there’s little similar intel about who belongs to the other side: Michigan has not had a real Democratic presidential primary since 1992. In 2004, the party held a caucus, and in 2008 the state was boycotted by candidates because of disputes over scheduling. It’s been a decade since Democrats had a high-intensity gubernatorial primary, and 18 years since there’s been any contest for a Senate nomination. As a result, there’s little publicly available information for strategists of either party looking to differentiate reliable Democrats from swing voters.

Tomorrow’s turnout may help to fill in some of those blanks, but Democratic machinations—encouraging party loyalists to either stay home or disingenuously meddle in the Republican primary—mean that any new data about individual partisan loyalties that enters the voter file this month could roil more than it enlightens. “The data is perfectly meaningful statistically but it’s asymmetric,” says Mark Grebner, an East Lansing consultant who built the state’s first voter file and sells it to candidates from both parties. “If a person votes in the Democratic primary under these circumstances it’s strong evidence that they’re really a Democrat. But for anyone who votes in the Republican primary, the evidence about their party affiliation is fairly weak.”

Obama’s campaign is confident that it will know who its voters are, through the voluminous individual contact that began in 2008 and will continue in the primary-day phone banks, where the campaign has planned to keep its top volunteers—not at the polls—on primary day. Indeed, even as they blow off Tuesday’s vote, Michigan Democrats say they are likely to treat the binding May caucus as an actual turnout exercise—and the records of who participates in those will not be a matter of public record. If Romney or Santorum wants to know who the state’s active Democrats are, he will have to figure it out for himself.

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