Why is the Obama Campaign Registering Likely Romney Supporters To Vote?

The new science of winning campaigns.
Aug. 15 2012 7:00 AM

Who Needs ACORN?

Meet the woman signing up Democratic voters more efficiently and effectively than the disgraced organization ever did. 

Illustration by Rob Donnelly.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly.

Every once in a while, a dog or a dead person gets asked to participate in the democratic process. It always happens the same way: A piece of mail arrives at an address where a pet resides, or where a person once did, with a personalized salutation and information on how to register to vote—and occasionally with an already-completed form ready to be signed and returned to local authorities. Sometimes a dead dog gets asked to register, and this really raises hackles. “I think it's tampering with our voting system,” a Seattle woman named Brenda Charlston told the Associated Press after her black Labrador Rosie—dead since 1998—received a completed registration form in her name at Charlston’s address this summer. “They’re fishing for votes: That's how I view it.”

Sasha Issenberg Sasha Issenberg

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

While fishing for dead dogs is typically depicted as one of the cruder approaches in the vote-fraud playbook, it actually reflects perhaps the most analytically sophisticated method for adding sympathetic new voters to a campaign’s rolls. Registration has traditionally been an area of focus for Democratic campaigns: The party’s strongest constituencies, minorities and young voters, are often the most underrepresented at the polls, and federal law treats nonpartisan registration drives as a tax-free expense. Unregistered voters also tend to be clustered geographically in dense areas, like big-city neighborhoods and college towns, where just standing on a busy street corner gives a campaign easy access to unregistered voters who could be pushed to complete a registration form on the spot.

No group mastered the practice of so-called site registration like ACORN, the community-organizing behemoth that was forced out of business in 2010 by the combined efforts of Andrew Breitbart and Glenn Beck to expose its methods and shame its leadership. Indeed, many Democrats had long found their ally’s techniques to be boorish, and occasionally counterproductive. By offering a bounty for each registration collected, ACORN encouraged paid canvassers to submit incomplete, duplicate, and fraudulent forms to election registrars, who often became so overwhelmed that their ability to process legitimate forms was hampered. Few Democrats want to be caught publicly mourning the controversial group’s disappearance. Yet privately many of them note that in this election year, ACORN’s scope and scale have proven irreplaceable, despite efforts to focus the attention of the liberal donor elite on the need to keep signing up new voters.

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“It’s a void,” says Tom Lindenfeld, a Democratic field tactician who has specialized in voter-registration drives. “There was an enormous voter-registration surge that was encouraged by the energy of the 2008 campaign. Now the number of outside groups that are helping in that way is far fewer.”

The burden has fallen to the Obama campaign itself, which is intent on changing the electorate in its favor through registration and mobilization. But the reality about the Obama campaign’s registration drives is that they are not necessarily that good at registering new voters for Obama—and they are not even designed to be. It is another organization that appears most able to pick up ACORN’s slack, and fully exploit a civic task for the left’s electoral gain—even if it means inadvertently trying to sign up the occasional dead Labrador.

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On Saturday, June 23, a handful of volunteers arrived in parking lot K of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. The annual Vietnamese Heritage Festival, a celebration of food and folkloric entertainment known as VietFest, reflects the growing Asian character of the Northern Virginia suburbs, which have swung Democratic in recent years and helped Obama to become the first of his party’s presidential nominees to win the state since 1964. This year’s VietFest was expected to draw over 10,000 attendees. Many of them were anticipated to be either new citizens or recent arrivals to Virginia from elsewhere in the country, so Obama’s local field organizers designated it as a site for a “Day of Action” registering voters.

The presence the Obama volunteers established under a VietFest tent—a fold-out table topped with clipboards bearing government forms—amounts to a familiar tableau. Those wielding the clipboards often appeal to high ideals of citizenship and welcome anybody who wants to take a form: the more voters, their words and posture usually declare, the better. Setting up a table at a community gathering designed to rally residents likely to be underrepresented on the electoral rolls is unquestionably good civics. It is not, however, always good politics.

Registration is a game of margins. Since states typically require those conducting registration drives to return every completed form they collect, there is no ability for a campaign—which has an interest in signing up only those voters who are likely to vote for its candidate—to sort through afterward and pick out the voters who are demographically favorable, or even those who register with the candidate’s own party. Instead, campaigns have tried to increase the likelihood of enrolling sympathetic new voters by administering registration drives in sites with a defined partisan edge. This was the casual math supporting ACORN’s logic in dispatching its canvassers to overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhoods. In a precinct that gave 75 percent of its votes to John Kerry, three out of four new registrants were likely to be Obama supporters. ACORN targeted the locations in that precinct that offered the heaviest foot traffic; with enough volume, the margin in registration rates between the two parties could turn into a significant advantage in total voters.

Much of the Obama campaign’s registration activity sticks to the same sensibility. Local field organizers send volunteers to places where, just by using cultural and demographic shorthand, they’re likely to find favorable margins for the Democrats: a Columbus, Ohio gay-pride festival and the Taos, N.M. farmer’s market; Juneteenth celebrations and African-American barbershops and beauty salons nationwide.

But VietFest doesn’t offer that advantage. According to a 2008 exit poll conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, 44 percent of Vietnamese-Americans nationwide registered as Republicans; only 24 percent did so as Democrats. That registration pattern seemed to track with a ballot preference: The Vietnamese were the only Asian ethnic subgroup that voted Republican in 2008, according to the exit poll, going two-to-one for McCain.

In other words, if you had randomly handed a Vietnamese-American a form before 2008, the odds were one-in-four that she would register as a Democrat and one-in-three that she would have cast a ballot for Obama. Even if Virginia’s Vietnamese are twice as likely to be Democrats as the national average—the population is clustered in traditionally conservative areas, like Texas, Louisiana, and California’s Orange County—that still means that an Obama volunteer who registers a VietFest attendee has less than a 50 percent chance of putting a Democrat on the rolls.

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Page Gardner hates those odds. She disdains the way that campaigns that aspire to rigor in testing their television ads or routing the candidate will mindlessly send volunteers to a place where they are likely to help register their opponents’ supporters. Gardner is also the person perhaps most responsible for trying to enroll dead dogs. This is not a coincidence.

Gardner’s Voter Participation Center has pioneered the effort to make registration more scientific, using the analytical advances that have transformed campaigns over the last decade to calibrate the odds of putting friendly voters on the rolls. The group was formed in the wake of the 2000 election as Women’s Voices Women’s Vote, to close what pollsters characterized as the “marriage gap” that had opened up between the two parties. Unmarried women had become one of the most loyal Democratic constituencies, Gardner noted, but also one of the most underrepresented at the polls. She went out and raised some money to launch a registration drive focused on unmarried women.

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