The new science of winning campaigns

Sept. 6 2012 1:19 PM

What Obama Field Staffers Will Be Monitoring When You're Watching the Speech

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A view of the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina on day two of the Democratic National Convention. President Barack Obama's nomination acceptance speech, originally schecduled to take place at the Bank of America Stadium, will now take place indoors at the Time Warner Cable Arena because of concerns about severe weather, the Democratic National Convention Committee announced. PHOTO / ROBYN BECK (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages)

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/GettyImages

CHARLOTTE — The metric of the day for Barack Obama’s field team is “flake rate”: the percentage of supporters who had registered to attend his open-air stadium speech but won’t show up for one of the replacement events the campaign is scrambling to arrange in its place after moving tonight’s convention session indoors.

Field staffers had seen the stadium event as a major boon for their local organizing efforts in North Carolina, much as they credit a similar arrangement in Denver four years ago with helping to deepen their footprint in Colorado. Both are states where Democrats have had limited recent presidential-campaign experience, and Obama used the mega-events as a way of gathering data on local voters and galvanizing local volunteers. For months the campaign has been running a unique volunteer-recruitment program in the Carolinas whose prize was a ticket to the Bank of America Stadium to see Obama.

Today the campaign is rushing to find locations around Charlotte where it can reroute as many as tens of thousands of those volunteers to watch live broadcasts of the speech instead. Once there, field staff hope to put them to work much as they would have during downtime at the stadium, operating as a pop-up phone bank calling voters from cell phones.  

To help keep those volunteers from flaking and watching the speech from home, campaign staffers are trying to persuade celebrities in town to skip the convention hall tonight and drop by one of the remote locations instead.  The catch: the celebrities will probably be unable to get back into the arena to watch Obama themselves.

Even if Obama’s field staff are able to improvise nimbly enough to minimize the flake rate, there is another metric that is sure to disappoint the finance department in Chicago: lost revenue from Obama merchandise the campaign had planned to sell during a festival-like day at the stadium.

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Sept. 3 2012 11:45 AM

Word Lab: "Bracketing"

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HANNIBAL, MO- AUGUST 4, 2004: Innovations in bracketing: a Bush supporter makes the point that John Kerry flip-flops and waffles on the issues outside a Kerry rally in Hannibal, Missouri. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

TERM: Bracketing, to bracket

WHAT IT IS SUPPOSED TO MEAN: The communications tactic of scheduling local press events before and after an opponent’s appearance in a given media market to dilute the influence of the opponent’s message and earn coverage for one’s own.

HOW IT IS USED: To describe just about any form of communication—from policy-heavy conference calls to low-grade heckling—designed to directly counter an opponent’s scheduled event.

IN CONTEXT: “Republicans plan to bracket Democrats’ Charlotte, N.C., convention with an unprecedented counter-convention right outside the gates of the Time Warner Cable Arena.” —Jonathan Karl, ABC News, last Friday

ORIGINS: The tactic has its origins in a 2002 meeting held in the White House Mess, between Bush political director Ken Mehlman and RNC regional-media director Kevin Sheridan.  The two were looking for ways to meddle in the Democrats’ presidential-primary season, and settled on the practice of making news in a local media market immediately before and after a Democrat’s stop there to counter the opposition.  It’s unclear who gets credit for the specific term bracketing, but it seemed to evoke a tactic of hard-edged containment—as opposed, perhaps, to the flabbier parenthesizing.

Bracketing became part of Sheridan’s RNC job description during the 2004 cycle, and his colleague Dan Ronayne assumed a parallel portfolio on Bush’s campaign.  (Both now work for Romney.)  They scheduled surrogates and held press conferences in local media markets around Democratic campaign schedules, and also dispatched the van of young staffers in dolphin costumes who trailed John Kerry and the supporters who heckled his rallies by waving flip-flops.

WHERE YOU SEE IT: Bracketing is just about everywhere that campaigns, parties and outside groups want to make their speeches, press conferences, and ads sound like part of a sophisticated media strategy.  A reading of Politico’s indispensable Morning Score newsletter testifies daily to the fact that the term of art has, over the last four years, spread across the partisan divide and is used as frequently now by Democrats and their allies. “Post-Jerusalem Bracketing,” Score’s James Hohmann reported after Romney’s summertime Israel trip: “The highest-profile Jew in the Obama administration, White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, will address the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York this morning. He's Orthodox.”

HOW IT LOST ITS MEANING: The Republican National Committee have expanded its definition to describe a whole series of man-marking activities, like sending a mid-level press staffer to stalk Joe Biden on a campaign trip to the Naples Spaghetti House. (“Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who was there, said the human bracketing didn't bother Biden much,” The Columbus Dispatch reported.)  “No question the word has been bastardized,” says a Republican bracketing pioneer who asked that his name not be used for fear of disquieting a current employer. “A lot of it is Press Secretary 101.”

Bracketing now seems to exist only to cloak low-concept election-season trash talk in the garb of technical sophistication. “Nice work @DeanHeller campaign on this wonderful bracketing job,” RNC political director Rick Wiley tweeted in mid-August, along with a photo of Nevada Democratic Senate challenger Shelley Berkeley at a press conference surrounded by signs for her opponent. “All you kids out there learn from this.”


Aug. 30 2012 8:09 PM

Mitt Romney's Square Deal: Not About the Money

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TAMPA, FL - AUGUST 30: Why are these Republican National Convention attendees giving alone? (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage from the GOP convention.

TAMPA — Mitt Romney’s digital department has used the convention week to roll out a new interface for accepting credit-card donations over the Square network. But just because Romney’s campaign has invested in developing a new mobile-fundraising platform doesn’t mean his aides expect to take in much money from it.

“I don’t see it from a fundraising point of view,” says Zac Moffatt, Romney’s digital director.  “I see this from a campaign-engagement point of view.”

In Tampa, the campaign has begun distributing the Square credit-card readers that plug into the earphone jack on an iPhone or iPad, and have developed a proprietary app that processes campaign contributors while soliciting donor information required for federal disclosure reports.  Square collects 2.75 percent of every contribution as a processing fee, which for low-dollar contributions could make it a far more cost-effective fundraising mechanism than direct-mail or phone solicitations.

Mobile giving is likely to accelerate the fusing of fieldwork and fundraising, traditionally considered two distinct functions in candidate campaigns.  (Non-profits that do fundraising canvasses already, to some degree, think in such hybrid terms.)  While individuals can make or process Square contributions anywhere, the campaign will specifically encourage their use at Victory field offices and debate-viewing parties that supporters host in their homes, according to Moffatt.

By turning supporters and volunteers into donors, the campaign hopes it can entice to them to get yet further involved later. “When people give to a campaign you get buy-in,” he says.  “This is equity in the campaign, but not equity from a financial perspective.”

Aug. 30 2012 10:22 AM

The Case of the Disappearing Black Voter   

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RICHMOND, CA - JUNE 14: Weeds grow past the height of a picket fence in front of an abandoned house. May foreclosure filings surged 9 percent to 205,990 filings, including default notices, scheduled auctions and bank repossessions. The spike is the first monthly increase since January. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sixty percent of Milwaukee’s black voters have disappeared.

Democrats have feared for years that one of the particular challenges of running campaigns in 2012 would be simply locating their voters.  The party’s constituencies (young people, immigrants, minorities) tend to be among the most mobile demographic groups.  And as NPR speculated this week in an analysis of battleground-state foreclosure figures, the housing crisis will likely only have made things more difficult for Democrats looking for their supporters.

New data from Milwaukee give an indication of how dire the Democrats’ disappearing-voter problem already is. This spring, the League of Young Voters, which was created to mobilize young minority communities, collaborated with the liberal Wisconsin Voices coalition to dispatch teams of young canvassers. Starting in April, they spent eight weeks knocking on 120,882 doors across 208 of Milwaukee’s 317 wards to raise awareness of the gubernatorial recall election scheduled for June.  The doors had one thing in common: the voter file said they were all home to a registered voter whom a commercial data vendor had flagged as likely to be African-American.

But the voter file represented a fiction, or at least a reality that had rapidly become out of date.  During those eight weeks, canvassers were able to successfully find and interact with only 31 percent of their targets. Twice that number were confirmed to no longer live at the address on file  — either because a structure was abandoned or condemned, or if a current resident reported that the targeted voter no longer lived there.

Based on those results, the New Organizing Institute, a Washington-based best-practices lab for lefty field operations, extrapolated that nearly 160,000 African-American voters in Milwaukee were no longer reachable at their last documented address — representing 41 percent of the city’s 2008 electorate.  It is a staggering figure in a battleground state where Democratic prospects rely on turning out Milwaukee’s urban population, an ever more urgent cause since Paul Ryan’s presence on the ticket could help mobilize core Republican constituencies in the city’s suburbs.  Over half of those identified as displaced were under the age of 35, and thus also less likely to be reachable through traditional landline phones.

The Milwaukee data will certainly be sobering to Democrats who rely on existing voter-file records when organizing walk sheets and call lists for get-out-the-vote canvasses.  Now, those working in Wisconsin realize, they’ll have to begin the process earlier to pinpoint residents and make sure that those who have been relocated are registered to vote at new addresses.

"That scraps any traditional GOTV planning — if six in ten people that you planned on talking to are not there,” says Biko Baker, executive director of the League of Young Voters.

Aug. 29 2012 1:36 PM

Nominee Romney to Add Cable to Ad Mix   

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A woman holds a cutout of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney before the third day of the 2012 Republican national Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum August 29, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. Romney was nominated on August 28 as the Republican candidate to run against US US President Barack Obama in the 2012 US Presidential Election. AFP PHOTO/Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages)

Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage from the GOP convention.

TAMPA — As soon as Mitt Romney officially accepts his party’s nomination tomorrow, his presidential campaign will go somewhere it hasn’t gone before: cable television.

As nominee, Romney will gain access to the hundreds of millions of dollars he has raised for his general-election fund this summer, the basis of what will likely amount to a significant advantage in available money over the Obama campaign for the remainder of the campaign.  One of the first places the cash will likely be spent is on a newly diversified media portfolio.

Cable television allows campaigns to more narrowly target their buys, both by piecing together small, demographically well-defined audiences on specialized channels and selecting compact geographical zones covered by individual cable systems.  But it’s also hard to match the volume offered by broadcast television, where one is forced to buy across an entire media market at a time and in so doing reach a significant share of the electorate.

So far this spring and summer, Romney has stuck with advertising on broadcast channels as he works to introduce broad themes.  Soon he will add a cable presence, not only giving his strategists a new opportunity to reach niche audiences but to use more tailored messages in the ads he shows them.

Aug. 27 2012 6:58 PM

Is This the Best App for Telling You How to Vote?

Software developers have long tried to develop tools to guide indecisive voters towards picking a candidate. Most of the ones I've seen appear to operate according to civics-class logic, in which the party or candidate who agrees with you most closely on the greatest number of issues deserves your vote. 

The CBC's new Vote Compass web app, launched in advance of next week's provincial elections in Québec, probably comes close than any other I've seen to accounting for all the other ways voters find themselves cross-pressured as election day approaches.  Perhaps most impressively it does so in a multi-party system where, as one Canadian campaign hand wrote me, "you may know which parties you oppose, but not whom to support."

Vote Compass begins with by asking a user to declare her views on a standard run of policy concerns, such as "the crucifix should continue to be displayed in the National Assembly," "only the Anglophone community should have access to Anglophone CEGEPs," and "the Caisse de dépôt et placement should put Quebec's economic interests ahead of its own financial gain." Then voters order the relative importance of each category (economic, environmental, etc.) of issues to their worldview.

But then the app also takes stock of non-issue consderations, such as the perceived trustworthiness and competence of party leaders, one's estimation of how corrupt each party is, and the potential for strategic voting—by asking a user to state how likely she thinks each party is to win in her constituency.

The app also asks a number of optional demographic questions, suggesting that its academic patrons at Université Laval are likely collecting an interesting data set about voter behavior in multi-party environments. Check out the app here; it's worth playing around with, even at the expense of polluting the data by creating an unlikely bloc of fictive Catholic, Anglophone redistributionists with strong views about how Québecois agricultural land should be made available to foreigners.

Aug. 27 2012 10:00 AM

Company That Consults on Beer-Bottle Design Questions Romney VP Pick—with Algorithms!

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A customer walks by bottles of beer on sale in the shopping area of the small craft brewery of Eataly, a temple to Italian gastronomy, on August 22, 2012 in Rome. Craft beers currently make up around two percent of Italy's beer market but the share is growing in double-figures every year as the trend catches on. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/GettyImages)

Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/GettyImages

If the Romney campaign is to be believed, it conducted less polling about the prospects of a Romney-Ryan ticket before Paul Ryan's appointment than a company in Romney's backyard has now done as part of a stunt statistical-modeling project, as the Boston Globe reports today:

Affinova Inc., a Waltham company that has repurposed algorithms devised for genetic research to address such consumer-product issues as how to design beer bottles and supermarket cereal aisles, claims that Mitt Romney may have missed an opportunity in not choosing a woman as a running mate.
Ditto for President Obama. If Hillary Clinton were to be his running mate, he’d have a good chance of connecting with swing voters, said Affinnova, which said it used its optimization software to sort through millions of combinations of vice presidents, platforms, slogans, and candidate images.
According to Affinnova’s analysis, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would have made for an excellent Romney running mate.
Typically, Affinnova uses its technology to help such companies as Procter & Gamble, Unilever, and Post Foods launch products and conduct consumer research. Those same analytical methods found that strong political women appeal to this year’s swing voters. Affinnova partly reached this conclusion by getting feedback from 1,000 swing voters in early August, and then a few days later, measuring the potential for success of Romney-Rice and Obama-Clinton tickets with a nationally representative sample of 2,000 likely voters.

It is not at all clear from the story (or the company's press release) what exactly the company did that was beyond standard polling, or why it needed "repurposed algorithms devised for genetic research" to ask people before and after the decision what they wanted to see in a vice-presidential candidate or which of two hypothetical tickets they preferred.  But it's hard for a PR firm to go wrong these days feeding an unskeptical media's appetite for silly "Big Data" stories.

Aug. 24 2012 6:41 PM

Do People Have To Like an Ad for It To Work?

After musing this morning on different ways of thinking about what a TV ad can do, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note two sources that have spent the summer auditioning new tools to assess the success of a single spot.  

Vanderbilt University political scientist John Geer has teamed up with YouGov, a pollster that uses Internet-based samples, and launched the Ad Rating Project, which allows a 600-person panel to judge ads. The project is designed to be a democratized counterweight to punditry. “We no longer have to rely solely on ad-hoc conversations among experts, various fact checkers, and journalists about whether an ad crosses the line,” Geer and YouGov’s Doug Rivers wrote in Politico. “We instead give Americans a chance to weigh in with their thoughts.”  As a consequence, it relies on purely qualitative questions. Did viewers like the ad? Was it memorable, interesting, unfair, untruthful or unbelievable? Did it make them feel hopeful, happy, disgusted, angry, and worried?

These are, of course, foremost judgments about aesthetics and propriety. Adam Schaeffer, a co-founder and research director of the Republican consulting firm Evolving Strategies, is trying to measure impact.

His firm is promoting the use of what it brands a “PocketTrial,” basically a lab experiment, in which an online sample is randomly shown ads and then polled on the state of the race and candidate popularity afterwards. Since the viewers were assigned to groups randomly, Schaeffer can attribute differences in how the groups respond to the influence of the ads they saw. “This is the only way you can get some purchase on causality,” he says.

When he recently showed two short videos to his subjects to assess the impact of messaging related to Paul Ryan’s selection—one from Romney’s campaign trumpeting the ticket, the other from Obama’s attacking the Ryan Plan—in each case male viewers moved dramatically in the directions each ad wanted to push them while female ones barely budged. “Women seem more stable in their vote choice,” he says.

Schaeffer is reassuringly timid about venturing an assumption as to why that might be. But he scoffs at the idea that the answer could be uncovered by asking voters to declare whether they find an ad interesting or claim to be disgusted by it. “We just observe—we don’t ask people to judge an ad,” he says. “We don’t care what they think of it.”

Aug. 24 2012 11:04 AM

Why Do Romney's "Mad Men" Think Their Ads Can Make a Difference?

The Washington Post’s Phil Rucker today profiles the Madison Avenue team recruited by Mitt Romney’s campaign to produce his general-election ads. Rucker unfortunately lets his subjects get away with calling themselves “the Mad Men,” but gives them the chance to articulate their theories of a single ad's power—arguably the greatest mystery to those who practice and study political communication.


Together, they clock 12-to-14-hour days in their shared offices and try to apply what they’ve learned in careers marketing Colgate toothpaste, Big Macs, BMWs and Nationwide Insurance to help pitch to the American masses a product that lacks a dominant market share: Mitt Romney.



Much of the money that Romney raises falls into the hands of the Mad Men, who already have cut spots and laid plans to blanket the airwaves in battleground states throughout the final 10-week sprint. Romney can raise all the millions there are to raise, but if his ad wizards don’t make compelling and persuasive ads, it won’t do him much good.

“We can keep throwing ads up there all day long, but is there an idea that’s really going to touch people? It’s going to get them to pull that handle, and we’re going to win,” said Jim “Fergie” Ferguson, the Texan.

The knock on Madison Avenue types dabbling in politics, from the 1950s onward, has been that they approach political campaigns as a form of consumer marketing. (“The idea that you can merchandise candidates for high office like breakfast cereal is the ultimate indignity to the democratic process,” Adlai Stevenson said in 1956.)  But I find it hard to believe that Ferguson—whom Rucker credits with coining “It’s what’s for dinner”—considers the process of winning a vote for Romney the same as converting someone into a beef-eater.

These days, it seems that the corporate-advertising world has healthier and more intellectually honest conversations than political consultants about what a single ad can or cannot do for its products.  Madison Avenue rarely operates under an election year’s accelerated timetable. They think in terms of cultivating consumers’ long-term attachments to brands, and seem comfortable with the notion that there is not always a direct relationship between an ad’s power and immediate market share. Political consultants can’t afford that patience, and always seem eager to claim short-term successes—attributing poll movement to a particularly memorable or distinctive ad, for example.

As a result, the conversation around political ads often ends up confusing  aesthetics and effectiveness. The moment after I first saw the Obama campaign’s ad “Firms”—a thirty-second John Del Cecato masterpiece generally known as the Mitt-warbles-America-the-Beautiful ad—I tweeted that it was “an instant classic to remind [us] that, like abstract expressionism and bluegrass, attack ads are a great American art form.”  It’s six weeks later, and while the distinctive ad appears to have helped sustain a media conversation about Romney’s personal finances, it’s unclear whether those thirty seconds had any direct impact on public opinion. Those who were asked to score it as part of an academic ad-rating project said it was “memorable.”  There may have been an idea in there that touched people, but will it get any of them to pull that handle?

Aug. 23 2012 7:28 AM

Obama To Accept Contributions by Mobile Phone

This morning, the Obama campaign announced it has begun accepting campaign contributions via text message. Four mobile carriers are currently participating, and donors will be limited to total contributions of $50 per billing cycle. From a campaign press release:

OFA intends to promote this convenient new avenue of small-dollar donations when supporters are most likely to take out their mobile phones to contribute. For instance, a video screen at a grassroots event with President Obama could flash a message such as, “To contribute $10 to Obama for America, text GIVE to 62262.” A similar message could appear in a web video or on a piece of campaign literature.

The move, following new policies formulated by the FEC this summer to allow such contributions, mark a further abandonment of the home as an anchor for political activity. In the past, voters were canvassed at home, reached on home phones, targeted on their home TVs, and sent fundraising solicitations at their home address. Politics was slow to embrace what the consumer world calls "out-of-home advertising" largely because people vote near their home and the information on voter-registration records are tethered to a specific address.

The rise of both cookie-targeted and geolocated web ads began to make intellgent out-of-home political advertising a possibility—showing someone an ad for her congressman even if she works in another district. Now we're likely to see the beginning of an out-of-home fundraising movement as well.

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