Politics & Policy

Message and Medium

(Erich Schlegel/Getty)
Republican campaigns can find the right voters; will they say the right things?

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from one that appeared in the December 8, 2014, issue of National Review.

In 2012, Republicans were dealt a drubbing at the polls. As disconcerting as the result itself was how it caught the party apparatus unawares. Despite the opinion polls and analyses pointing to a narrow Obama victory, internal GOP polling had the Romney campaign convinced it would win (so much so that it had not drafted a concession speech on Election Night). Rather than the crushing victory that Romney advisers had predicted, Republicans woke up to a greater-than-expected Obama victory, losses in the Senate and the House, and the prospect of a highly durable Democratic majority.

That the 2012 electorate looked quite different from what Republicans had expected was no accident. It was the product of years of careful planning and execution by Democrats, who not only built a technology and online-fundraising behemoth but carefully invested in their ground game, placing precinct captains in every neighborhood in battleground states. On Election Day, the Obama campaign’s 3,000 field staffers were merely the tip of a very elaborate pyramid structure reaching into virtually every community in America, with an estimated 250,000 volunteers. Republican efforts were but a whimper in comparison, and data collected after the fact suggested that they had barely a third of the ground forces that Democrats had at their disposal.

Political campaigns are an art and a science, but in the last decade, it is the science of campaigning that has seen the greatest advances. As Sasha Issenberg details in his book The Victory Lab, Democrats have been at the forefront of developing techniques to increase turnout among liberal-leaning infrequent voters. In 2012, the Obama campaign built a 300-person data-and-digital operation that, for example, could test 18 different versions of a fundraising missive to find the most effective one. A culture of rigorous testing and analytics pervaded the Democratic party in a way that eluded Republicans, who saw in-house technical staff at the Republican National Committee dwindle to the low single digits in 2012.

As they looked toward 2014, Republicans were determined not to be caught flat-footed again. “Our challenge is less of a technology problem and more of a culture problem,” noted the RNC’s postmortem on the 2012 election. “We need to strive for an environment of intellectual curiosity, data, research, and testing to ensure that our programs are working.”

So in 2014, Republicans spent more than $100 million on data, digital, and field operations. More than 50 staffers manned the RNC’s digital and data hub, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee had more than 20—with operatives dispatched throughout the country to ensure that Senate campaigns were running in the most efficient way possible.

The sweeping Republican victories that followed exceeded all of the pundits’ and pollsters’ predictions. But have Republicans succeeded in building an operation that can deliver lasting political victories for the Right? It’s too soon to say, and in 2016 the complexity of a presidential operation will surely require sophistication an order of magnitude above what was required to win this year. But Republicans’ better use of voter data in the midterm elections was instrumental to their success and provides a strong foundation to build on.

Republicans identified 2,450,747 voters in battleground states who tend to vote Republican but don’t normally vote in midterm elections. Here’s how. Right-leaning entities such as Data Trust and i360 can merge consumer data—information about lifestyles and buying preferences—with publicly available information about a voter. To this, a campaign can add insights gleaned from large-scale survey research in which thousands of voters are questioned. Campaigns can thereby get a detailed view of who is likely or unlikely to show up at the polls, and of whether their candidate is likely to win on Election Day if those predictions are borne out.

#page#They can then focus on creating an electorate that puts the odds in their favor. For instance, Republicans in 2014 used such information to find voters who were likely to be Republican but unlikely to show up at the polls and focused more get-out-the-vote efforts on those potential voters than on Republicans who were likely to turn out. Meanwhile, Democrats in many races had overly optimistic models of who would or would not vote and spent millions of dollars targeting the wrong voters. For example, the independent voters who Democrats assumed would break two-to-one for Bruce Braley, their Iowa Senate candidate, actually split closer to 50–50.

But while knowing whom to target is a beginning, it is what campaigns do with that knowledge that matters. Campaigns are increasingly able to answer “Who?”—to pinpoint the right voters—but far less focused on defining the “how,” the messages and ideas that will engage and persuade. This shortcoming has been referred to as the “big data, tiny creative” problem: We may know with a great deal of confidence that a particular voter is our target, but if our contact with that voter is poorly designed—if a piece of campaign mail fails to persuade, if a TV spot falls flat, if a Web ad isn’t memorable—then all the targeting in the world is for naught. For instance, it is now possible to use viewership data gleaned from set-top boxes to target advertisements only at voters a campaign needs to reach, but the campaign needs good advertisements to show in the first place.

There have been great advances in the world of political field experiments, in which campaigns test the return on investment for various modes of contact. Such experiments attempt to answer questions such as “Do I get more bang for my buck by spending $10,000 on mail brochures or on field staff to knock on doors?” This is an area where the Right, during the 2014 election cycle, focused on catching up to Democrats by establishing its own version of the Left’s “Analyst Institute,” an organization that conducts field experiments based on social-science research in order to improve the running of campaigns. For example, Politico reported that Americans for Prosperity worked with i360 to identify 297,000 right-leaning Colorado voters who were unlikely to vote. These voters were broken into six groups, and each was nudged to vote using a different medium — some received a piece of mail and others were contacted in person, for example, while a control group received no contact at all. Identifying the best means of communications is important — and it’s a burning question for specialists in mail, field, and digital outreach. But too often, the same spirit of experimentation is not applied to understanding which message will truly move people. In that sphere, the gut instinct of a few political gurus still reigns supreme.

And political gurus are often wrong. In the 2012 election, for instance, the Obama campaign had staffers make guesses about which fundraising-e-mail subject line would bring in the most money and then tested a large number of options on a subgroup of the campaign’s e-mail targets. It often found that the staff’s instincts were wrong, and that the subject line that raised the most money was one nobody in his right mind expected to work the best.

While this kind of testing is mainstream on both the right and the left in digital campaigning, on the right it has not spread to other forms of campaign communication. So the next frontier for Republican campaigns is to uncover new ways to gauge what voters are thinking and feeling, and then to use smart testing to craft advertisements and messages that resonate, motivate, and persuade.

To be clear, this doesn’t have to mean crafting a million different messages for a million different voters. Big themes and big ideas still matter. And we should use new tools, beyond the usual focus-group and telephone-survey testing, to ensure that we have the very best message that resonates with the most people, rather than subdividing the electorate into dozens of tiny segments, losing authenticity and consistency in the process.

The Right has made enormous strides in catching up to and aiming to surpass the Left in targeting voters and turning them out. In the world of messages and advertising, however, the Right is still relying too much on gut decisions. The Republican campaigns that will win in 2016 will be those that use the incredible array of new tools at their disposal to better understand not just whom to talk at, but how to be heard.

—  Kristen Soltis Anderson and Patrick Ruffini are co-founders of Echelon Insights, an opinion-research and analytics firm. This article is adapted from one that ran in the December 8, 2014, issue of National Review.

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