The RNC's Phony "Ground Game" Video

The new science of winning campaigns
Sept. 12 2012 6:08 PM

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.

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

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