The new science of winning campaigns

Aug. 22 2012 4:03 PM

The GOP Number Crunchers Helping Gay Marriage Advocates

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ALLENTOWN, UNITED STATES: (FILES): This 01 October 2004 file photo shows Ken Mehlman (C), US President George W. Bush's campaign manager, responding to reporters' questions in Allentown, New Jersey, on Bush's debate performance. Bush wants Mehlman to take over as the head of the Republican National Committee (RNC), the White House said 15 November 2004. 'He was instrumental in overseeing our 2004 historic election night gains. More importantly, Ken has a clear vision for making our gains long-lasting,' Bush spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. RNC members, currently led by Ed Gillespie, will vote on Mehlman at their 18-19 January 2005 meeting. AFP PHOTO/FILES/Paul J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images

Gay-marriage activists maneuvering to win referenda this year in Maine and Washington State are now working with tools from an unlikely source: a Republican firm that has played a central role in Mitt Romney’s political operation since 2002 and is now also working for top Republican super PACs.

TargetPoint Consulting has segmented the electorate in each state into 33 tiers ranked according to their predicted levels of support for gay marriage. The microtargeting project was commissioned by the nonpartisan group Freedom to Marry, which is involved in campaigns in three of the four states where gay-marriage questionns are on the ballot this year. The deal with TargetPoint was arranged in part by Ken Mehlman, the former Republican National Committee chairman and Bush campaign manager who has aided state-level gay-marriage efforts in a variety of advisory, lobbying, and fundraising roles.

The arrangement marks an unusual cross-party tactical collaboration. While it is common for political consultants to work together across party lines on issue-based projects—last year Freedom to Marry hired Obama pollster Joel Benenson and former George W. Bush pollster Jan van Lohuizen to conduct a joint survey—such partnerships are unknown in the field of data and statistical modeling. When it comes to data, the two parties (and their allies) have innovated in isolation from one another, with little intellectual cross-pollination over the last decade. To this day, analysts on both the Republican and Democratic sides have only the sketchiest understanding of the methods and techniques their opponents use to target voters.

“Our objective is to use every means at our disposal—whether left-of-center or right-of-center or not affiliated at all—in our singular pursuit to win the freedom to marry,” says Marc Solomon, Freedom to Marry’s national campaign director.  “From everything we know, personal conversations are most helpful in making the case.”

In relying on Mehlman’s counsel and TargetPoint’s staff, Freedom to Marry has retained Republican pioneers in the use of microtargeting. In 2004, Mehlman contracted TargetPoint’s founder, Alex Gage, for a $3 million national project to break the electorate in clusters based on their attitudes towards Bush’s re-election, views on specific issues and campaign themes, and their individual likelihood of voting. After the campaign, Mehlman became chairman of the RNC, for which TargetPoint has been a consultant, through the 2006 elections. He now works for private-equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts.

Gage and his firm have been closely involved in Romney’s campaigns since his first gubernatorial run in 2002. In 2008, Gage served as the director of strategy for Romney’s presidential campaign, and this winter his firm’s statistical models played a crucial under-the-radar role in helping him (more or less) win the Iowa caucuses. This summer, a TargetPoint vice president, Alex Lundry, took a leave of absence from the firm to develop a data-science team at Romney’s Boston headquarters. (A TargetPoint executive did not respond to an emailed inquiry today about its work with Freedom to Marry.)

At the same time, TargetPoint will be using its expertise to help Freedom to Marry’s allies locate those Maine and Washington voters they think are most friendly to their cause—one that Romney, and most of their other Republican clients, oppose.

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Aug. 22 2012 12:11 PM

Frontiers in Direct Mail: Cash in Envelopes Edition

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MIAMI - OCTOBER 20: Republican Congressional candidate David Rivera is greeted by supporters as he campaigns at an early voting site on October 20, 2010 in Miami, Florida. Rivera is running against Democrat Joe Garcia for the 25th congressional district. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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.

Aug. 21 2012 4:30 PM

Are GOP Efforts To Oust Todd Akin Hurting Romney?

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ST LOUIS, MO - JUNE 7: Supporters stand during the National Anthem before Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event at the military contractor Production Products on June 7, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri. According to reports, the Romney and Republican campaign committees announced June 7, that they have raised $76.8 million in May. (Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images)

Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

Since Monday morning, Republican Party elites have been using whatever leverage they can to push their nominee, Todd Akin, from the Missouri Senate race. In most cases this has meant withholding institutional support: The Crossroads GPS super PAC has pulled its pro-Akin advertising, and leading Senate Republicans have indicated their campaign fund will follow. But a low-profile move that doesn’t have any monetary value attached to it may prove the most consequential—by hurting the Republican Party more than it helps.

“We have Victory centers and volunteers who do work and phone scripts around Missouri and I’ve told them to take Congressman Akin off the script today,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus told St. Louis’ KMOX on Monday.

Victory is the name Republicans use for the local coordinated campaigns it runs in conjunction with state parties to boost the entire ticket. (Democrats employ a similar structure.) By coordinating the mechanics associated with voter turnout, party officials believe they can avoid redundant efforts—by, say, a presidential campaign, a Senate campaign, and a gubernatorial campaign all running simultaneously in the same state (as is the case now in Missouri).

At this point, most Victory centers around the country are using volunteers to call or canvass people seen as likely Republican targets, and are using a script that asks a handful of questions to assess the voter’s degree of support for Romney and the other candidates on the Republican ticket. Those who demonstrate strong Romney support now likely won’t be contacted again by the campaign until it is time to actually cast a ballot, when they will become targets for the Victory get-out-the-vote program. Voters whose support appears shaky should become targets for Republican persuasion efforts, particularly direct mail and online ads. Because it was developed with party funds, voter information collected through these field efforts gets shared with the individual campaigns.

Removing Akin’s name from those scripts carried an implied threat to his candidacy: The party is no longer using its resources to identify his supporters so they can be mobilized in November. But the RNC’s gambit could be self-destructive even if it succeeds in forcing Akin to drop out (and he’s vowed to stay in the race): The party is sacrificing what could prove to be a useful (and potentially unrecoverable) trove of data that should help Romney keep Missouri—at the moment probably the most safely red of all the presidential battleground states—from being competitive.

If Victory volunteers in Missouri had continued asking about both Akin and Romney this week, they would have likely picked up on individual-level movement away from his candidacy. Some fraction of those voters who identified themselves as Romney/Akin supporters likely became Romney/McCaskill supporters or Romney/Undecided supporters after the candidate’s remarks about “legitimate rape.” There’s no reason to believe these people are lost for good: many of these people could come back to the straight Republican ticket if Akin is replaced with an acceptable candidate, or if Akin manages to win back voters’ trust.

But the voters who were turned off by Akin’s remarks should worry Romney because they probably represent those most susceptible to Obama’s “war on women” message. Democrats will certainly be eager to individually identify these voters, likely social moderates whom Obama’s strategists hope to wedge from their party’s presidential nominee on reproductive issues. If a voter quickly changed her mind about Akin why not tell her all about Paul Ryan’s attitudes on abortion and rape and see if she wavers on Romney? 

The Romney camp should see this potential expansion of Obama’s universe of persuasion targets as a new area where he may be shortly be forced to play defense. But that will be much harder to do if he doesn’t know which voters Obama will see as vulnerable to his efforts. Priebus may have wanted to punish Akin, but it could be Romney who suffers the most lasting damage.

Aug. 21 2012 3:43 PM

Welcome to Victory Lab, the Blog

Welcome to Victory Lab, a blog from the people who brought you Victory Lab, the Slate column, and The Victory Lab, a book that will be published next month. 

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 sashaissenberg@gmail.com 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.