Welcome to Victory Lab, the Blog
All of the Victory Labs are about what I loosely call the science of campaigns. That means this blog will emphasize mechanics and technique over messages and candidates. There are many wonderfully ineffable aspects of the democratic process, but this blog will devote itself to the measurable ones. Many posts will document the work of the cadre of skeptical experimenters and data mavens who obsess not over the sweeping strategic gesture but the small tactical improvement that can win votes. (There’s a reason Politico called my book “Moneyball for politics.”)
For the next three months, I will take you on a tour of the election landscape, at all levels of office, keeping a close eye on elements of the electioneering enterprise that the media too often ignore. In other words, this will be the blog written for the person who cares what direct mail and web ads the little old lady in Dubuque sees—and why.
Please share your suggestions, ideas, and leads with me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @victorylab. I hope you can help me see what campaigning looks like on the street where you live: Please besiege me with pictures of the mail you receive, reports of the phone calls you’re getting, and the canvassers you’re seeing, and I’ll help you understand why they think they can change your behavior or swing you to their cause.
Frontiers in Direct Mail: Cash in Envelopes Edition
This bit of news from the Miami Herald’s Marc Caputo gives an inattentive reader the briefly delightful impression that Florida Republican Congressman David Rivera’s direct-mail program to prop up a sham candidate in the Democratic primary consisted of sending envelopes full of cash to voters:
As part of the effort, a political unknown named Justin Lamar Sternad campaigned against Garcia by running a sophisticated mail campaign that Rivera helped orchestrate and fund, campaign vendors said.
Among the revelations: The mailers were often paid in envelopes stuffed with crisp hundred-dollar bills.
Nonetheless Rivera's effort has made its contribution to the election-year knowledge base: the certainty that "shadow campaign" is the term whose history we wish we still had Bill Safire around to document.
If Obama Is Bouncing, Which Voters Are Moving?
So voters finally seem to be moving, part of what’s being called an Obama convention bounce. But who exactly is doing the moving?
I recently wrote about one of the “PocketTrial” lab experiments run by Adam Schaeffer of the Republican opinion-research firm Evolving Strategies. Schaeffer randomly assigned an online sample of voters to watch either a Romney or an Obama campaign video, and then attributed change in each candidate’s support to the video’s influence.
The most interesting finding from the experiment was that male viewers were more easily susceptible to persuasion than female ones, shifting their opinion in response to both ads while women remained relatively stable. “A larger portion of men are decided, but the proportion that are conflicted are more variable,” Schaeffer says.
Schaeffer then looked at another dataset to see if it showed the same gender split. He looked at the last eight samples from the Cooperative Campaign Analysis Project, for which the pollster YouGov surveys 1,000 respondents in weekly wave, stretching back from early July to just before the conventions. Each time, between 200 and 400 voters in the sample did not identify strongly with a party.
Schaeffer split that sub-sample by gender, and calculated the average share of undecided voters—in YouGov’s polls they’re categorized “not sure”—across the eight-week period. He then looked at how much the number of undecided fluctuated week to week, by comparing the average to the wave in which it was highest and the wave it was lowest. Among women, the mean “not sure” was 26 percent, an average between a minimum of 22 percent one week and 32 percent another. Fewer of the men were undecided, but they swung more, from a minimum of 8 percent to a maximum of 22 percent around a mean of 15 percent. (In statistical terms, that means the number of standard deviations from the mean is 46 percent higher among men than women.)
The findings that the independent male vote is more volatile raises few possibilities. Men could be moving more in this election, as Schaeffer’s lab experiment suggested: they’re more susceptible to persuasive messages for and against candidates. But there could be a behavioral explanation, as well: what if men are more ready to commit to attach themselves to a new opinion after forming it—like, say, if inspired by by a welll-executed convention—and women are more tentative about making such a commitment?
The RNC's Phony "Ground Game" Video
Despite its efforts at a cinema-vérité style, this video released today by the Republican National Committee “highlighting our ground game after contacting our 20 millionth voter last weekend,” as a press release put it, falls a bit short when it comes to verisimilitude. The interaction shown with a voter is one likely that would have never taken place without a camera present.
“That script at the door was completely staged,” says a Republican operative familiar with the encounter. “They just ad-libbed the ‘why are you voting for Romney?’ because they already knew he was voting for Romney.”
On the day canvassers were filmed interviewing voters in Northern Virginia, their data-collection scripts included four possible questions. One each asked which candidate the voter intended to back in races for president, Senate, and the House of Representatives. When a voter announces support for the Republican ticket, he is asked whether he wants to request an absentee ballot. The data from those interactions allows the campaign to sort voters depending on whether they require additional persuasive attention or an extra push to turn out, and can be fed back into the microtargeting models that help to make predictions about the predispositions of voters that canvassers are unable to reach.
The question that canvassers are shown posing to the guy in a red shirt—Can you tell us exactly why you’re supporting Mitt Romney?—is one that they are not encouraged to ask. Campaigns don’t typically ask open-ended questions in these settings, since the type of material that comes out of voters mouths (“It’s about communities out there, it’s not about people in Washington D.C.,” Mr. Red Shirt says) can’t be slotted in easily to the databases campaigns use to manage voter information. (I wrote at the beginning of the year about a fitful effort by the Obama campaign, code-named Dreamcatcher, to use text analytics to interpret this type of soft data shared by voters.)
On their rounds, the Virginia canvassers spotted a Romney sign on a house and asked the why you’re supporting Mitt question anticipating the response of an enthusiastic backer. “When our video crew was following volunteers they were asking that question to people who ID’d as Mitt supporters for video content,” says RNC spokesman Tim Miller.
This is the second time in a week that the RNC, in an effort to trumpet its “ground game,” has misrepresented the nature of its field activities. This weekend, when the party was running a “Super Saturday” voter-outreach program, political director Rick Wiley wrote on Twitter: “ As I type this tweet we have over 2,000 volunteers on the phone with undecided voters at this second.” In fact the voters weren’t necessarily undecided: the whole point of the calls was to reach voters and ask whether they had made up their minds about which candidate to support. “Undecideds meaning unidentified,” Wiley later acknowledged in a later email.
Big Labor Tries To Make Online Ads Work for Outrage
When it begins showing ads Thursday that come close to calling Virginia Senate candidate George Allen a racist, the AFL-CIO’s new Workers’ Voice super PAC will be using new tools to focus old-fashioned outrage online.
Workers’ Voice is rotating four ads each attesting to a different case study in Allen’s alleged racial intolerance: one about his vote against honoring Martin Luther King Day, one each describing his use of a Confederate flag and a noose as interior-décor elements, and one declaring simply macaca—the nickname he used for an Indian-American tracker during his last Senate campaign. Viewers who click on one of the ads will be taken to a landing page where they will be allowed to vote on which “of these you think is the most deplorable of George Allen’s past actions.”
The design reflects Big Labor’s expanded post-Citizens United reach beyond merely communicating with union members and its desire to brand Workers' Voice as a platform for a new crowdsourced approach to once-centralized tactical decisions like which ads to run. “Voting on them lets us get real-time feedback on which is working the best, which then we can use to change the traffic,” says Workers’ Voice communications director Eddie Vale. “If people think one of them is way worse, we’ll increase the frequency of that one in rotation.”
Above all, the $54,000 online buy exposes the extent to which ads delivered through individually identifiable online cookies may supplant direct mail as political communicators' favorite channel for engaging preselected targets on provocative themes with little fear of mobilizing opponents. The ads will reach core Democratic constituencies—voters in Richmond and the Washington suburbs, along with African-Americans and Latinos statewide—in which Tim Kaine’s allies hope to increase interest and awareness of the Senate contest. It amounts to a universe of infrequent voters predicted to be uncertain to cast a ballot in the Senate race—an apparent tactic for fighting so-called “drop-off” among Democrats who turn out to vote for Barack Obama but may not yet be invested in the Senate race between two former governors.
These groups cover both union members and nonunion households, although the AFL has different methods of reaching each population. To assemble its own cookie pool of union members, the AFL gathers email lists of members and sends prospecting messages that draw recipients to a Web page where they can be identified and matched through the email address to a real-world name and address. The AFL profiles nonunion households through microtargeting models and has firm DS Political match its list of targets to individual cookies that can be used to serve them ads across a variety of networks. By requiring those who want to vote on the Allen ads to sign in with a name, email address, and ZIP code, Workers’ Voice will expand its own database of Virginia supporters reachable again through other channels.
The Consulting Specialty Which Must Not Be Named
I wrote earlier this year about Democratic consultant Scott Goodstein, who oversaw Barack Obama’s mobile-phone tactics in 2008 and has since led a crusade for stronger laws restricting campaigns from sending unsolicited text messages to voters.
In the piece, Goodstein battled with Gabriel S. Joseph, the president of the firm ccAdvertising, who claimed to have eluded existing spam regulations by sending “millions” of messages through email servers that delivered them to phones in an SMS format. Joseph refused to talk to me for my piece. Prompted by political text-message spam reaching Virginia voters with attacks on Senate candidate Tim Kaine, the Los Angeles Times on Thursday surveys the legal terrain and discovers Joseph distancing himself from the practice if failing to explain what he exactly he does for paying clients instead.
“I don’t know anything about sending text messages," Joseph told the Times’ Kim Geiger. "My company specializes in creating unique ways to be able to do stuff."
Why Democrats Think Anti-Romney Ads Work Better in Spanish
When Priorities USA and SEIU, two of the leading liberal players in the presidential campaign, decided that they wanted to roll out another round of anti-Romney ads aimed at Hispanic voters, the groups had a big decision to make. Should the ads be in Spanish or English?
At least half of American Hispanics say they consume only English-language media. Yet marketers who specialize in targeting Hispanics regularly pitch political campaigns on the cultural value of airing ads in Spanish-language outlets, from national networks like Univision and Telemundo to individual radio stations. Running ads in Spanish will be taken by voters as a sign of respect, they say.
But one Democratic research outfit has found that, in 2012 at least, the decision of whether to speak to Hispanics in Spanish or English is far from solely an aesthetic choice. Earlier this year, Project New America, a Denver-based consulting firm that develops strategic guidance for Democrats competing in areas that have not been traditional demographic strongholds, built a microtargeting model to profile Hispanic voters nationwide. When firm analysts isolated the characteristics that differentiated voters based on their candidate preference, one stood out: those who consumed news from both Spanish and English sources were predicted to be undecided at a much higher rate than English-language dominant Hispanics.
Project New America shared the finding with its clients, including Priorities USA and SEIU, two of the groups most active in trying to persuade Hispanic voters on Obama’s behalf. When they this week unveiled a new joint ad—featuring testimonials from Latino voters explaining why they would not vote for Romney—the voices were all in Spanish. The ad is now airing on Univision and Telemundo, along with Azteca América and Entravision affiliates. (According to Project New America’s research, between one-third and half of Hispanics describe themselves as bilingual news consumers, with fewer than ten percent Spanish-only and the remainder English-only, although it varies by state.)
When Project New America polled earlier this summer, at a time when Obama and his allies were aggressively attacking Romney in media, its analysts found that Spanish-speaking Hispanics shifted opinions more dramatically than those who consumed news only in English. They found Romney’s unfavorable rating among Colorado Hispanics increased nine points over six weeks between May and July; among Spanish-language news consumers, it moved by 21 points. There were similar results in Nevada.
The findings are likely to guide other pro-Obama advertisers looking to sway Hispanics to keep their ads popping up between soccer and telenovelas. “This research showed that Spanish-language communication was extremely powerful to fill in the unknowns about Romney,” says Project New America research director David Winkler.
Who Can Pull the Plug on the Romney Campaign?
The New York Times ran an odd story yesterday that piggybacked a critique of Mitt Romney’s media strategy onto a smart observation about the accounting device he employed during summer months in which he so fearsomely outpaced Barack Obama in the campaign-finance race. By employing “joint fundraising committees” shared with other Republican players—and being publicly hazy about exactly how the money was distributed—Romney has entered the fall with only limited authority over much of the money he has raised. As we learn more today about the candidates’ and parties’ finances, it looks as though Romney’s lack of advertising parity in August may be the least worrisome consequence of this structure.
Romney’s biggest problem is that more than one-half the money he has collected this spring and summer from his most generous donors is controlled by entities whose priorities may no longer align with his by election day. The campaign has been raising money into a Romney Victory account that allows donors to write one check for up to $75,800 that gets allocated among different committees—all of which are now working to further the nominee’s prospects. Only $5,000 of that goes to Romney’s own fund, while $30,800 goes to the Republican National Committee and $40,000 is divided among various battleground-state Republican parties.
As the Times noted, about $22 million of the RNC’s money can be spent in full coordination with Romney; basically the Boston campaign can directly order up ads from the party headquarters and specify what they should say and where they should appear. The rest of the committee’s money has to be spent on party-building activities not allocated exclusively for Romney’s benefit. “The fact that money is at the RNC significantly hobbles the Romney folk,” a former Federal Election Commission official explains to me. “This Victory money is going to have to be party things that benefit Romney incidentally.”
The money that has been assigned to state parties can’t be treated as Romney dollars, either. It is usually devoted to get-out-the-vote programs that benefit the entire ticket or use generic “vote Republican” ballot messages. Romney has effectively franchised his "ground game"—the operation of identifying and mobilizing individual voters—to such Victory programs. In other words, Romney’s ability to get out his vote is entirely dependent on the continued cooperation of party organizations.
The worst scenario for the Romney campaign would come if the national or state parties begin to see his candidacy as a lost cause, or decide to make congressional majorities—or gubernatorial, state row-office or legislative races—a priority instead. In 1996, Bob Dole’s campaign faced such a reckoning starting after his first debate against Bill Clinton failed to move the race in his favor, and party leaders redirected resources to protect Republican interests elsewhere. Romney is yet far from that point, but a cascade of further bad news and pessimistic polls could leave him quickly isolated.
“If the national party or the state parties make a decision that the presidential race is not working out, they can shift money down-ballot,” says a lawyer who has served as counsel to a presidential campaign. “Which the party has the right to do.”
Can Crowdsourcing Its Politics Help Big Labor Keep Its Influence?
Of all the unintended consequences of Citizens United, this may be the most remarkable: the AFL-CIO crowdsourcing its political program. I wrote from Wisconsin before the gubernatorial recall there about the Supreme Court decision had changed labor politics, by knocking down sixty-year old restraints on the ability of unions to communicate with voters. The AFL now runs programs through multiple channels, but can know work on mobilizing and persuading working-class voters regardless of whether they live in union households.
Today the AFL’s super-PAC Worker’s Voice will unveil a new platform it calls RePurpose. (Perhaps the finest stylist working in broadcast campaign ads, Jimmy Siegel, did the promotional video above. He was also responsible for the gorgeous spots in Eliot Spitzer’s 2006 campaign—evidence of the aesthetic risks one can take when running for reelection without serious opposition.) On the front end, RePurpose resembles a loyalty program, allowing Worker’s Voice supporters to accumulate points for basic activities, from one for for signing a petition to seven for knocking on a voter’s door as part of a canvass.
Where RePurpose really deviates from usual practice, though, is that it allows supporters to effectively cash in their points to sponsor particular Worker’s Voice activities—choosing which states and candidates they want to back and the method or mode of contact. “Different items cost different amounts, depending on a few different factors, such as the amount of staff time needed to create or change something (such as a phonebank script or a canvass turf) or the actual cost of the item (such as an online ad or direct mail piece),” according to an explainer.
As I wrote about other Worker’s Voice efforts in June, the platform keeps labor active as a broker of others’ activities: supporters can spend their points only on candidates endorsed by the AFL or its affiliates.
Why Journalists Should Be Forced to Work on Campaigns
Two weeks ago I wrote an essay in The New York Times arguing that horse-race coverage is bad because journalists don't understand how campaigns work.
Over the last decade, almost entirely out of view, campaigns have modernized their techniques in such a way that nearly every member of the political press now lacks the specialized expertise to interpret what’s going on. Campaign professionals have developed a new conceptual framework for understanding what moves votes. It’s as if restaurant critics remained oblivious to a generation’s worth of new chefs’ tools and techniques and persisted in describing every dish that came out of the kitchen as either “grilled” or “broiled.”
Today I proffered a solution: journalists should work on campaigns.
We need working reporters who have spent time inside a field office and have the comfort with the street-level politics that an engaged activist would develop after a few months of regular volunteer shifts on a modern campaign.