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Morning Feature – The Victory Lab, Part I: Who Votes How, Where?

November 15, 2012

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – The Victory Lab, Part I: Who Votes How, Where?

Local campaign veterans know the drill: examine precinct voting records to map base, swing, and hostile precincts, then canvass in the swing precincts and GOTV with your base. But how many votes did you miss? (More)

The Victory Lab, Part I: Who Votes How, Where?

This week Morning Feature discusses Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. Today we look at the familiar, precinct-based analysis and planning. Tomorrow we’ll see the rise of data-mining and campaign plans that target individual voters. Saturday we’ll ask whether micro-targeted voter contacts provided the Obama campaign’s decisive edge.

Sasha Issenberg writes the Victory Lab column for Slate and is the Washington correspondent for Monocle, where he covers politics, business, diplomacy, and culture. He covered the 2008 presidential election for the Boston Globe, and has also written for New York, The New York Times Magazine, The Washington Monthly, The Atlantic, and other magazines.

Still the Standard: Precinct Analysis

Last July I attended and wrote about the Democracy for America Campaign Academy. In that course, we learned the kind of precinct-level analysis that was developed by the National Committee for an Effective Congress and is still widely used by Democratic candidates and local party groups across the country. It focuses on three measurements for each precinct:

  • Democratic Performance Index (DPI) – The average percentage vote over the past three similar elections for viable Democratic candidates.
  • Persuadable Voter Index (PVI) – The average number of voters who switch between Democratic and Republican candidates, over the past three similar elections.
  • Voter Turnout Index (VTI) – The mean and standard deviation for turnout over the past three similar elections.

Based on that data, candidates and party groups can prioritize both persuasion and GOTV efforts. For example, in base precincts (DPI over 65) you needn’t spend much time convincing voters to vote for Democrats. Instead, you should make persuasion contacts in swing precincts (DPIs between 35 and 65) and focus first on precincts with the most persuadable voters (highest PVIs).

As election day nears and you shift to GOTV, your efforts should begin in base precincts – where most voters will support you if they vote – and focus first on the precincts with lower average turnout but higher standard deviations. Your GOTV efforts then shift to swing precincts, focusing on voters that looked promising in persuasion contacts.

The Benefits of Precinct Analysis

This approach to campaign planning is still widely used, and it has benefits. For starters, it’s inexpensive and fairly easy. The data are public information, usually kept by local elections officials. They may charge a nominal fee to get the precinct-by-precinct, race-by-race vote data in spreadsheet form, and tinkering to turn raw vote totals into each precinct’s DPI, PVI, and VTI scores may take you a few hours the first time, but that tinkering is less difficult than tedious. And for federal races, your campaign or party group can also get precinct DPI, PVI, and VTI scores directly from the NCEC.

Precinct analysis also helps you narrow your target universe. It can be daunting to see you need 135,219 votes to win a county commission race in a midterm election. To see that broken out to 1256 votes for Precinct 19, 1183 for Precinct 22, etc. feels easier, especially if you then prioritize your precincts for both persuasion and GOTV. The vast task of amassing 135,219 votes now has a specific and manageable first step: recruiting volunteers to make persuasion calls and canvassing in Precinct 53.

If you get the volunteers and work your plan all the way through to election day, you should have a reasonable shot … as reasonable as the electorate that year, anyway. If a blue wave is carrying you, you may ride it to victory. But if a red tide is pushing against you, even your best efforts may fall short.

The Limits of Precinct Analysis

But did you get every vote you could have? There are usually at least some Democratic supporters even in hostile precincts (DPIs under 35). How many didn’t vote for you or your candidates because no one in your campaign or party did GOTV work there? How many voters did you turn out for opponents in your base precincts because your GOVT efforts boosted turnout overall and didn’t distinguish supporters from non-supporters?

And if it you lost by only 552 votes, was it really ‘okay’ to skip persuasion calls in those 12 precincts, totaling 14,281 voters, whose PVIs averaged only 8%? Had you reached and won half of those 1143 voters, those 571 votes would have put you over the top. But what else would you have had to cut back to commit your and your volunteers’ time to identifying and persuading those 1143 swing voters? Would chasing them have cost you more than the 571 votes you might have gained?

When precinct-level data are all you have, those questions can be as maddening as they are impossible to answer. You can’t know how persuadable those 1143 voters were. Maybe you’d have won more than half, with the right message. Or maybe they were merely a statistical mirage, and every volunteer-hour you spent looking for them would have been wasted.

Even if those 1143 voters existed and you found them, what would the “right message” have been? Would they have responded to your basic persuasion script, or would you have needed to emphasize some points and downplay others to reach them?

Come to think of it, should you have used the same persuasion script countywide? Might you have gained a few more votes here, and lost a few less there, if you’d tailored your script to the issues and solutions that mattered to those voters? How could you know?

Political consultants and media types you worked with all have their answers. Oddly, the consultants blame the media types, and vice versa. Each consultant and each media type has a different story, there’s only one thing they all agree on. Each insists your loss was not his or her fault.

In fact, about all you’re certain of is that you now know every sound your house makes at 2am as you lie there, staring at the ceiling, pondering What Might Have Been.

Tomorrow we’ll see how advances in data-mining help campaigns find those 1143 voters, and others, and know what messages are most likely to resonate with each.

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Happy Thursday!

14 Responses to “Morning Feature – The Victory Lab, Part I: Who Votes How, Where?”

  1. winterbanyan Says:

    I can see how knowing how many votes you need from each precinct can be useful. It gives you a target. Knowing which precincts are likely to give you the most votes also gives you a target, a goal you can work toward.

    But there the usefulness ends. I saw signs of microtargeting this campaign season. OFA absolutely did not leave any answering machine messages until the weekend before the election. Our local party did. And frankly, all too often when I left a message the answering machine didn’t tell me who I’d called, but simply gave me a phone number.

    So I often wondered, as I left those messages, how many people I was talking to were actually Republicans who now had the phone number of a former Democrat. I actually wondered if my call would stir some indifferent red voter to get to the polls.

    Having pondered that question, I’ve decided leaving messages for households that do not identify themselves except by phone number might be a mistake. I don’t think I’ll do that again. Except we were, at that point, in the last three weeks of the campaign. Still, better to call until you get a live person and know who you’re talking to if you’re targeting Dems.

    Now I’m curious to hear how OFA’s plan worked to microtarget. Very curious.

    Great read!

    • NCrissieB Says:

      Research shows voice mail messages have almost no persuasion impact, but a good voice mail message can be useful for GOTV and other ‘reminder’ calls. Your voice mail script should have taken no more than 20-30 seconds to read, and you have to balance that against the time you’d have spent going back later to dial that number again, the likelihood of reaching the voter in person, etc.

      If your local party phone bank packets included a voice mail script, they were probably ‘reminder’ calls to update registration information, request or return absentee ballots, that early voting had opened, and/or election day GOTV. While a live conversation reminder is more effective than a voice mail message, a voice mail message is more effective than no reminder at all.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  2. Jim W Says:

    Eagerly waiting for Saturday. “Saturday we’ll ask whether micro-targeted voter contacts provided the Obama campaign’s decisive edge.”

    The old question. Message, ground game, or advertising, etc.in what mix. We know saturation advertising did not work in 2012.

    • NCrissieB Says:

      We’ll ask that question, but I don’t promise any definitive answer. One of the critiques of Issenberg’s book is the implicit premise that micro-targeted voter contacts are indeed the key to victory. The research is clear that one-to-one voter contacts are more persuasive than ads – especially if the contact comes from a local volunteer – but the studies have methodological issues that may make them inapplicable to a presidential campaign. We’ll discuss those issues in some depth Saturday.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  3. addisnana Says:

    Ramsey County includes St. Paul. Many of the neighborhoods had low turnout historically and demographics highly favorable to Democrats. The volunteers were shifted to certain precincts the last week of GOTV. There were immigrant neighborhoods and extremely poor neighborhoods as evidenced by the boarded up buildings and foreclosure notices.

    Ramsey County is the only county in the state that increased voter turnout. The targeting worked.

    We have voter turnout, statewide in the high 70s for Presidential elections. When you start out with those kinds of numbers, increases are more difficult to achieve.

    I stopped at a quick stop on election day to use the restroom. My vest had buttons for everyone running plus vote NO buttons for the amendments. A couple of young black women asked me if it was election day yet. I told them it was and used my cell to call the voter hot line and get them to the right precinct. It was 2 in the afternoon. I passed out extra Obama/Biden buttons and told them to get themselves to the polls pronto. I probably ended up talking with 15 or 20 young people, mostly black and asian. They all seemed pretty excited about voting and we have same day registration.

    I made more contacts in the parking lot than I found people at home when knocking on doors. I’m thinking I maybe should have just stayed in the parking lot.

    The parking lot story is anecdotal and not data. But still…..open to the possibilities is a good thing sometimes.

    • winterbanyan Says:

      I absolutely LOVE the quick stop story. You should have had a booth right there. :D

    • NCrissieB Says:

      One of the surprising insights of this book was the geographic advantage held by Democrats. More Democrats live in urban or near-urban areas, where the population density makes door-to-door canvassing very efficient as compared to Republicans driving five miles between houses in a rural area. Campaign planners can also boost voter density by assigning canvassers outside public libraries or other places where they’re likely to meet more possible voters, in less time, than through door-to-door canvassing … including, apparently, that parking lot. :)

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  4. Jim W Says:

    Another look at the campaign.

    Romney cast his loss in a different light, at least in a phone call with top donors Wednesday. He asserted that Obama won re-election because of the “gifts” the president had already provided to blacks, Hispanics and young voters and because of the president’s effort to paint Romney as anti-immigrant.

    “The president’s campaign, if you will, focused on giving targeted groups a big gift,” Romney said, citing immigration proposals aimed at Hispanics and free contraception coverage that appealed to young women. “He made a big effort on small things.”

    Romney said his campaign, in contrast, had been about “big issues for the whole country.” He said he faced problems as a candidate because he was “getting beat up” by the Obama campaign and said the debates allowed him to come back.

    The Republican nominee didn’t acknowledge any major missteps and said his team had run a superb campaign.

    • winterbanyan Says:

      Oh really? Oh REALLY? They blew a wad of money. The called me on an internal poll. They robo-called me repeatedly. Not one of those things provided a personal contact. But then they didn’t need “person contact” because, well, they had the money to automate it all.

      Even if I hadn’t been so opposed to the man, I wouldn’t have been impressed. Unlike people I called who commented they’d never been personally called by a campaign before and thought it was cool. Or all the people I was able to help sort out voter issues….

    • addisnana Says:

      Romney channels Bill O’Reily who I think first came up with the “stuff” argument.

    • NCrissieB Says:

      That’s one interpretation of President Obama’s and Democrats’ efforts to enact the stimulus bill, the auto industry rescue, Obamacare, the repeal of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell, the DREAMers Rule, etc. The other interpretation is that President Obama did, in fact, have “a record to run on.” ;-)

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  5. addisnana Says:

    I am wondering about the cell phone factor. Some of the people I reached phone banking were cell phones. I know because they told me.

    I am cell only. Most young people are cell only. We get our data from voter registration. If people don’t want to give out their cell number, how will we call them?

    • NCrissieB Says:

      Many of the numbers I reached in phone-banking with my county Democrats were cell phones. VoteBuilder allows the DNC, state party officials, and others who input and update the data to include cell phone numbers, if a number is available. I also had many names – about 10% on a typical sheet – for whom I had no telephone number at all. Obviously, I couldn’t call them … and I hoped OFA had targeted them for door-to-door contact.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::