President Obama and Democrats clearly had the stronger field operation in 2012, with more dynamic and effective micro-targeting and far superior GOTV campaigns. Were these the keys to this year’s victories? (More)

The Victory Lab, Part III: Who Voted, and Why? (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature discusses Sasha Issenberg’s The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. Thursday we looked at the familiar, precinct-based analysis and planning. Yesterday we saw the rise of data-mining and campaign plans that target individual voters. Today we 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.

A Clear Advantage

President Obama and the Democratic Party had a clear advantage this year: “A Vast, Left-Wing Conspiracy” that used data-mining, sophisticated mathematical analysis, and randomized empirical trials to identify and register likely supporters. They then ensured supporters had the requisite ID and pushed the psychological buttons that turned mere support into ballots cast.

By contrast, the Romney campaign outsourced their data analysis, betting that competition among private vendors and consultants would defeat President Obama’s and Democrats’ more centralized organization. That strategy reflected Romney’s and the Republican Party’s ideology.

Among the results were a mailer sent and at least a dozen calls made to Casa Crissie. As I’m the Vice Chair of my county’s Democratic Party and my partner is a precinct committeewoman, these were a waste of Romney campaign resources. It wasn’t just me. Every county Democratic Party member I spoke with had received at least one mailer and at least one phone call. Issenberg’s Slate Victory Lab articles, linked above, report similar stories from OFA and Democratic activists across the country.

In fairness, Casa Crissie also received dozens of calls from OFA, and we repeatedly reminded them that we were both Democratic Party activists and that their time would be better spent calling other people. OFA were very good, and we local Democrats tried to model their approach in our voter outreach efforts … but neither we nor they were as breathtakingly efficient as Issenberg’s writing suggests.

A Different Theory of Victory

A glance at the popular vote track at Nate Silver’s New York Times website suggests a different theory for 2012. Silver offered his first popular vote forecast on May 31st, projecting President Obama to win 50.6% and Romney 48.3% of the vote. While the track opened somewhat – to 51.6% vs. 47.3% after the Democratic National Convention and again after Romney’s infamous “47% comments” – the final projection almost exactly matched where Silver started. The only difference was the margin of error, which shrank from ±6% on May 31st to ±2% on election eve.

In an article published November 8th, Silver argued that the Republican Party faces “a structural disadvantage” due to demographics and the distribution of GOP supporters among the states. Simply, Republican voters are clustered in the south in smaller farm belt and mountain states that total too few Electoral College votes to win an election.

As it happened, Silver’s model got one call very wrong this year. He projected Ohio to be the tipping point state, and with a high degree of confidence. In fact the tipping point state was Colorado, which President Obama won by 4.7% … on a nationwide popular vote margin of 2.5%. In order to win this year, Silver writes, Mitt Romney would have had to win the popular vote by at least three points.

No Republican has done that since 1988, when George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis, and 85% of voters were non-Hispanic whites. In 2012, only 72% of voters were non-Hispanic whites, and President Obama and Democrats won overwhelming margins people of color.

A Foregone Conclusion?

Data like those point toward the 2012 election being almost a foregone conclusion. In that theory – popular among some political science academics – the election hinges on a few key economic numbers and the incumbent party’s approval ratings. The ads, debates, stump speeches, registration drives, canvassing, phone-banking, and rides to polls are all but irrelevant. Yet Silver doesn’t go that far, noting:

Finally, some of the Democrats’ apparent advantage in the swing states may reflect Mr. Obama’s voter targeting and turnout operations – which were superior, by most accounts, to John McCain’s in 2008 and Mr. Romney’s in 2012.

A comparison of the 2008, 2010, and 2012 electorates drives home that point. While Republican voters are always more likely to turn out in midterms, for a variety of reasons, the key elements of the Democratic coalition did not drop off from 2008 to 2012. Indeed – except for African Americans, whose turnout was the same as four years ago – the Democratic coalition grew across every demographic: Hispanics, Asians, women, and young voters.

That wasn’t mere population growth; the percentage of women or young voters has not increased since 2008. It also wasn’t a statistical fluke. It was partly Romney and the Republican Party insulting everyone except rich white men. But mostly it was, in fact, the sophisticated planning and tens of millions of man-hours invested by OFA and local Democratic Party activists across the country.

The 2012 election was a victory of state-of-the-art data-mining and mathematical analysis mated with old-fashioned, one-to-one voter contacts. As one staffer put it, “We ran a national election like a school board race.”

Yes, they did. Yes, we did.


Happy Saturday!