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.

Obama in Michigan
The Obama campaign can confound Republicans by discouraging voter turnout in the Michigan primary

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images.

On Tuesday night, Barack Obama’s name will be on a Michigan ballot, but his campaign is doing everything it can to keep his supporters away from the polls. On previous Tuesdays when Republicans were voting, the re-election campaign made high-profile efforts to encourage Democrats to turn out and participate in party nominating contests in which Obama faced no serious competition. Obama organizers lured voters to Iowa caucus locations with a promise that the president would address attendees by teleconference, and Joe Biden did the same for New Hampshire house parties at 8 p.m. on primary night, an hour after the polls closed in most of the states. In both cases, campaign leadership pointed to participation rates in the contests as evidence of a successful dry run for Obama’s operations in November. “The results showed an incredible amount of enthusiasm for the president’s re-election,” campaign manager Jim Messina told the press after Iowa. “The Republicans should not expect they can build something like this overnight.”

Sasha Issenberg Sasha Issenberg

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

In Michigan, however, the campaign is planning no such show of force. The state legislature scheduled simultaneous primaries for both parties, against the wishes of Democratic Party officials, who have chosen to award delegates through a caucus in May. There were no efforts to dispatch canvassers over the weekend or to leave literature on the doorknobs of voters whom Obama’s analysts have identified as turnout targets. There will be primary-night house parties tomorrow, but the campaign’s scheduling tool allows supporters to begin them as early as 6:30 pm and recommends “starting your event around 7:30”—while polls are still open, and often a prime voting time for the working-class and student constituencies Obama considers his base.

In other words, Obama is helping to depress participation in Tuesday’s nonbinding primary. Some loyal Democrats will surely turn out, but marginal voters—whom hundreds of randomized field experiments have shown can be mobilized through targeted efforts like mailers, phone calls, and canvassing—will get no extra push from Obama. “We’re having a ‘day of action,’ ” says campaign spokesman Frank Benenati, “not to turn out the vote but to build up our organization.”

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Some Obama supporters will choose to cast a ballot in the other party’s primary, perhaps with the goal of humiliating erstwhile favorite son Mitt Romney—much as Rush Limbaugh did in 2008 when he encouraged his listeners in Ohio to take advantage of open primaries by supporting Hillary Clinton to derail Obama’s march to the nomination, a project Limbaugh called Operation Chaos. Such efforts last week received the blessing of Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer, who sent an email to his party list letting Democrats know they were eligible to participate in the opposition’s nominating contest. “If Democratic crossover votes affect the results of the GOP presidential primary next Tuesday, the Republicans will only have themselves to blame,” Brewer wrote.

But the Democrats’ efforts to discourage voting in their own primary may represent a more enduring mischief. Their passivity will not trigger the immediate glee Democrats might feel if Rick Santorum were to claim victory in Romney’s home state on Tuesday, but could confound whoever wins the GOP nomination by depriving them of valuable data that could help decode the battleground state’s particularly opaque electorate this fall.

Michigan offers some of the most challenging terrain on which to perform the basic triage of separating likely supporters from likely opponents among those voters who are still up for grabs. It is among a handful of states that does not permit voters to register by party, typically the first attribute campaigns use to categorize individuals. Without any formal indicator of partisan affiliation, targeters look to past participation in primaries for cues—considering those who chose to vote in one party’s nominating contest as either “behavioral Democrats” or “behavioral Republicans.” But not enough people participate in primaries for this to be as comprehensive an indicator as party registration is in other states.

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