Chuck Ross

Forget About the Intersection of Madison Avenue and Vine Street. Power Players Want to Know More About the Junction of Madison Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue — The Real Reason Obama Did So Well in the Swing States and Won Re-Election

Nov 7, 2012

Yes, it’s true that the Republicans have problems, in general, with women, Hispanics and black Americans. As many pundits have noted, the evolving demographics of the country don’t bode well for a national party that is so overwhelmingly white.

In Ohio, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was no doubt also hurt by his public opposition, four years ago, to the public financing part of the auto bailout, which was the bailout’s key component.

But if you drill down on President Obama’s re-election victory yesterday, what’s really impressive is how well he did in the swing states in general. The swing states are: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Of those states, he only lost two, both of which he won in 2008: Indiana and North Carolina. And they are the two most Republican-leaning of the swing states.

The reason Obama did so well in the battleground states is that his on-the-ground organization was steeped in micromarketing techniques, many of them used by smart brands in the private sector every day.

A good overview piece on this subject is Allison Brennan’s "Microtargeting: How campaigns know you better than you know yourself," which she posted Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, on CNN’s website.

Brennan writes, “Surfing the Web leaves a trail of browser history that allows marketing companies to glean insight into personal interests. Do you read The New York Times or watch Fox News? Do you have children? Do you shop in high-end stores or hunt for bargains on eBay? Do you support the Sierra Club or Club for Growth?

“Political strategy firms like Democratic DSPolitical and Republican CampaignGrid are gathering or buying up that data. They then match it to the publicly available voter rolls that were digitized as a part of a new federal law aimed at efforts to help improve voting procedures after the ballot controversies of the 2000 election.”

The article adds, “What these firms receive is detailed information about how often a potential voter has cast a ballot in addition to data on what they read, where they shop and other consumer behavior tracked for decades off line.

“Jim Walsh of DSPolitical said the company has so far aggregated more than 600 million cookies — or tags on Internet user IP addresses that track movements online — and has worked to match them against lists of some 250 million voters in the United States.

"This all is aimed at helping them determine how someone might vote and then reaching them wherever they go online.”

But to really drill down on the subject, and learn why Obama was able to utilize these techniques better than the Romney camp, you should read and study the articles Sasha Issenberg wrote for Slate over this political season.

Issenberg is the author of the book “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.”

In one Slate article he wrote, “[W]hile the groups on the right could conceivably catch up with Obama and his allies in the scope and funding of their ground-level activities, in terms of sophistication they lag too far behind to catch up in 2012.

“In fact, when it comes to the use of voter data and analytics, the two sides appear to be as unmatched as they have ever been on a specific electioneering tactic in the modern campaign era. No party ever has ever had such a durable structural advantage over the other on polling, making television ads, or fundraising, for example. And the reason may be that the most important developments in how to analyze voter behavior has not emerged from within the political profession.

“ ‘The left has significantly broadened its perspective on political behavior,’ says Adam Schaeffer, who earned graduate degrees in both evolutionary psychology and political behavior before launching a Republican opinion-research firm, Evolving Strategies.‘I’m jealous of them.’ “

Issenberg attributes the advantage the Democrats have in this field to “the mutual discomfort between academia and conservative political professionals, which has limited Republicans’ ability to modernize campaign methods. The biggest technical and conceptual developments these days are coming from the social sciences, whose more practically minded scholars regularly collaborate with candidates and interest groups on the left. As a result, the electioneering right is suffering from what amounts to a lost generation; they have simply failed to keep up with advances in voter targeting and communications since Bush’s re-election. The left, meanwhile, has arrived at crucial insights that have upended the conventional wisdom about how you convert citizens to your cause. Right now, only one team is on the field with the tools to most effectively find potential supporters and win their votes.”

In Issenberg’s articles he goes into arcane detail about the sophistication of the Obama team in both targeting supporters and then getting them out to actually vote.

In one article Issenberg talks about a young woman, Sarah, who was targeted by both the Romney and Obama camps. This past summer she was still living at home, and in what was a total miscalculation, the Romney camp “appears to have concluded Sarah was persuadable, and then assigned her into the issue bucket she fit best. In this case, she got assigned ‘the economy,’ which explains the series of at least 10 mailers she received about coal, welfare, deficits, and spending. ‘All my mail from Romney about coal seems completely irrelevant to me,’ she says.”

The article continues, “In August, Sarah moved out of her parents’ house and into an apartment complex in another Virginia county two hours to the northeast. She registered to vote there, and at the new address started receiving mail from Obama’s campaign for the first time. It was less demographically jarring: One piece dealt with birth control, another with rising education costs. Obama’s analysts clearly now saw her as one of those middle-of-the-roaders who was a good target for persuasion, and also probably concluded they had no other way to reach her besides through the mail: Unlike her parents, she has no landline at her current address, so if they had been trying to reach her by phone, or had planned to, that option was no longer available. (Obama’s campaign has experimented with individual ‘callability’ scores, refining the ability to predict how easy it would be to reach a given voter by phone.) Sarah says she has been planning to vote for Obama all year, and has never revisited that choice, though the campaign’s contact has successfully warded off any ambivalence. ‘The mailings I’ve received have made me more enthusiastic about my choice,’ she says. The campaign hadn’t converted a new vote, but it successfully shored up an existing one."

Meanwhile, the story notes, “For its part, the Romney campaign [had] still not given up on persuading Sarah, but appeared to have failed a more basic test of tracking voter behavior. The campaign was still sending her mail at an address where she no longer lives or votes.”

I imagine that in the next four years the Republicans will get much better at understanding and implementing the sophisticated strategies where Madison Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue intersect


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