Game On: Why Obama will defeat McCain, Rove and the Bush Legacy
by bored now, Thu Sep 04, 2008 at 04:27:45 PM EDT
first of two
It was never going to be easy. In fact, it seems to be a peculiar Democratic disease to go into the fall thinking that defeating the Republican presidential candidate -- whatever Republican presidential candidate -- amounts to a slam dunk. Thankfully, the Obama campaign, and the candidate himself, has never fallen prey to this disease.
Like Hillary's campaign, the senior leadership of the Obama campaign closely studied the 2004 campaign. But the Obama campaign began to implement the lessons it derived from 2004 from the beginning. Its goal was not to win the Democratic nomination, but to win the White House. Its analysis didn't focus on improving at the margins but on answering the question, Why has only one Democratic presidential candidate won 50% of the vote since 1968 (Jimmy Carter in 1976)? In light of their conclusions, the Obama campaign started from the outset to rectify the weaknesses they found in prior Democratic presidential campaigns.
In essence, the Obama campaign set out to radically change Democratic campaigns.
The stark reality that most Democrats are eager to deny is that Republicans start with institutional advantages. They have a 40-year headstart. While Democrats have taken enormous steps to skip generations to catch-up, we still can't say that we are there yet. Not until we've won (and, really, repeatedly won) -- not until we get 50% of the popular vote.
I want to concentrate on five areas where Republicans proved superior in 2004 and point out how the Obama campaign looks to be superior in 2008.
Democrats have long understood the advantages of altering the electorate in order to win elections. In 2004, Democrats went into the general election campaign with every intent to register new voters, increase voter contact to "unprecedented levels" and turn out their supporters on election day. By some measures (especially if you listened to the independent organizations who were tasked to do this), they were successful. By my measure, we failed. We lost. It was as simple as that.
It had registered half-a-million new voters. In the last days of the campaign it had made 23 million phone calls, sent out 16 million pieces of mail, and delivered 11 million fliers. And on top of it all, it had "launched the largest get-out-the-vote effort the Democratic Party has ever seen," turning out "unprecedented levels of voters in the battleground states."
But the results were decidedly mixed. In some states, Democratic efforts to register new voters were exceeded by those on the other side:
In Florida, the state President Bush won by 537 votes in 2000, the parties had registered an almost equal number of new voters -- 270,000 for Republicans, 263,000 for Democrats -- as of August, the latest period for which the state has made figures available. New voter-registration numbers won't be available until Thursday.
But an analysis by the New York Times in late September found that of the 150 ZIP codes in Florida that had voted most heavily for Bush, new registrations had increased by 12 percent. Of the 110 ZIP codes that gave more than two-thirds of their votes to Democrat Al Gore, new registrations jumped by 60 percent.
Democrats took a lot of comfort in the latter statistic going into November 2004. But Republicans were equally jubilant. Through microtargeting and sophisticated uses of the voter vault, Republicans not only registered new voters in heavily Republican areas but even found new Republicans in heavily Democratic areas. So a substantial increase in voter registration in heavily Democratic areas wasn't necessarily a victory for Democrats. That was evident on election day, when increases in Democratic votes were matched (and sometimes exceeded) by increases in Republican votes:
Traditional Democratic Counties
00 Bush 34,177 39.77% Gore 47,365 55.20%
04 Bush 47,762 42.90% Kerry 62,504 56.14%
00 Bush 177,279 30.92% Gore 386,518 67.42%
04 Bush 244,674 34.61% Kerry 453,873 64.21%
00 Bush 289,456 46.3% Gore 328,702 52.6%
04 Bush 361,095 46.3% Kerry 409,732 52.6%
00 Bush 152,460 57.46% Gore 108,039 40.75%
04 Bush 220,190 57.78% Kerry 158,610 41.62%
00 Bush 180,794 50.17% Gore 169,576 47.06%
04 Bush 245,576 mm Kerry 214,132
00 Bush 152,951 mm Gore 269,732
04 Bush 212,578 39.05% Kerry 328,553 60.35%
I-4 Corridor Counties
00 Bush 115,185 52.70% Gore 97,318 44.52%
04 Bush 152,948 57.65% Kerry 110,256 41.56%
00 Bush 134,517 48.02% Gore 140,220 50.05%
04 Bush 192,539 mm Kerry 193,354
00 Bush 75,677 54.96% Gore 59,174 42.97%
04 Bush 108,126 58.10% Kerry 76,938 41.34%
The nicest thing we can say about Democratic efforts in this regard in 2004 is that Republicans either matched our voter registration drives or neutralized them with a superior GOTV program. In Florida, they did both.
No one needed to tell Barack Obama about the importance of voter registration. One of the lures of Chicago for Obama was the election of Harold Washington. Harold Washington was equally coy about running for mayor in the early '80s and he famously told his supporters that if they wanted him to run in 1983 that they should go out and register 50,000 new voters in Chicago. Come back and ask him to run, then, he is supposed to have said. They did. In 1992, Barack Obama returned to Chicago to lead Project Vote:In 2008, the Obama campaign has taken the game-changer approach to heart and sought to improve on it from 2004. What is most significant from the Obama approach to (new) voter registration is that it isn't a separate, discreet step that ends and then moves on to the next one. Rather, it's the beginning of an organizational continuum that leads up to election day. Voter registration is not simply about finding new voters to register, but about finding -- and developing -- new leaders to lead the community. It allows the campaign to brand Obama, to activate volunteers, to begin voter contact. The goal is not simply new registrants but new activists, new contacts, acclimation to a metric-driven campaign approach.
In Iowa, the Obama campaign was successful is changing the electorate sufficiently for Barack Obama to come out on top. In Pennsylvania, despite their success in registering more than half of the new voters before the primary, we did not. The approach is not only sound, it has the ability to change the map. The Obama campaign has institutionalized its voter registration efforts into Vote for Change, and made numerous reference to it at Invesco Field when Barack accepted the Democratic nomination. Nor are these efforts confined to "heavily Democratic areas," ala 2004:
Steve Hildebrand, Obama's deputy campaign manager overseeing the effort, told The Associated Press that the campaign has identified 55 million unregistered voters across the country. The campaign has found about 8.1 million unregistered yet eligible blacks, another 8 million unregistered Hispanics and nearly 7.5 million unregistered people between the ages of 18 and 24.
The campaign says their research estimates more than two-thirds would vote for Obama if they were registered and motivated.
But the biggest difference is that the Obama campaign is not trumpeting its success like ACT et al did in 2004. Republicans can't use Obama press releases as a road map for their own efforts -- or to raise more money to fund them. Obama's Vote for Change isn't a secret, but it's not in your face, either. I can vouch from my experience in Pennsylvania that the campaign won't be out there putting out press releases for all the voters it registers; it's metrics will be closely held until the election is over.
Data & Targeting
They called 2004 the "Voter Vault election." The RNC's voter vault is not a mystery or even an enigma. It is merely the very patient and thorough collection of voter data over time, combined with previous voter contact efforts (specifically issues canvassing/phone banks) and other data mining techniques. This is a fairly decent description of what the voter vault is:
Voter Vault is the single greatest advancement in political technology since the personal computer. In our view it is even more important than email and the Internet. A candidate with access to the Voter Vault gains a trove of information -- data he couldn't hope to gather on his own -- that enables him to target his voter contacts, conserve resources and focus his message on those voters most likely to be moved.
Voter Vault is the recent name for the 20-year project of the Republican National Committee to produce an enhanced voter file.
An enhanced voter file is one that is cross-matched with public and consumer information such as phone numbers, driver licenses, hunting and fishing licenses, veteran records, property records, census results, phone numbers and, in at least one state we've seen, the results of past telephone surveys, in addition to a run through the Postal Service's National Change of Address (NCOA) system.
One suburban African American woman in Ohio, for example, told us that though she tends to vote Democratic, she was deluged in 2004 with calls, e-mail messages and other forms of communication by Republicans who somehow knew that she was a mother with children in private schools, an active church attendee, an abortion opponent and a golfer.
FOUR DAYS before this month's special election in San Diego County to replace imprisoned former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, Republican strategists back in Washington were worried. In addition to voter discontent with GOP leadership and the looming shadow of scandal dominating the campaign, Democrats appeared to enjoy yet another advantage: More absentee ballots were being submitted by Democratic voters than by Republicans.
The advantage did not last long. Jolted to life, the GOP machinery revved into high gear as activists poured into the district. They scoured the party's computer database for sympathetic voters who had requested absentee ballots but had not yet submitted them, knocked on their doors and called them on the phone. Suddenly, thousands of additional votes had been secured, and by election day, the GOP had turned around a costly deficit -- with 10,000 more Republicans than Democrats voting absentee.
In 2004, we worked with the VAN. Many, if not most, of us were frustrated by that experience. But there are a number of reasons to think that the Obama campaign is on much stronger footing than Kerry was. The first reason is that Democrats are no longer flying blind. The Obama campaign not only relies on VAN (now VoteBuilder) but also bought into Catalist, which has some of the advanced features in the Voter Vault. Those of us who worked with the Obama campaign on the same turf for a period through an election day may have noticed. When the campaign started using Catalist, our GOTV lists got bigger. Not only were we relying on our 1s and 2s on election day, but we were also knocking on doors that used predictive models for voters we hadn't identified (but fit the campaign's criteria for likely voters).
The second reason is that both the DNC (through its 50-state strategy) and the Obama campaign have put voter contact tools -- and its data input requirement -- into the hands of local activists. The Obama campaign's Neighbor to Neighbor tool and the DNC's PartyBuilder tool both allow activists to work from home, contact voters with a coordinated script and input the data without leaving their neighborhood. While campaign volunteers theoretically could have done this using VoteBuilder, in reality this rarely happened.
The neighbor to neighbor (or peer 2 peer) emphasis contrasts with the successful brand that Republicans pegged Democratic activists as outsiders in 2004. The Orange Hats didn't help, but ACT was also culpable here.
There's a certain advantage for political campaigns in their database/voter contact efforts being in beta rather than considered stable. In the beta phase -- which I'd consider Democrats to be in the beta phase atm -- the campaigns have a lot more contact with voters in order to build up their data fields. This is especially true with the Obama campaign. Republicans, otoh, have basically reached a plateau in their data efforts, especially in the traditional swing states. While I'm sure that the GOP still has people out there knocking on doors or making phone calls somewhere in a traditional swing state, Democrats are really just getting started. And that face time, leaving the impression that Democrats care about what voters think, is fresh in their minds. That's an advantage we can exploit.
The Obama campaign, along with the DNC, are building a bigger and better database. The biggest advantage that Democrats have in 2008 over 2004 is that this database won't be segregated. The campaign will have access to all the voter contact data generated in this cycle. Don't underestimate the advantage of coordinated efforts and sharing data. In my mind, it wasn't just that Republicans had a better database than Democrats, but the fact that the Bush campaign had access to all the data, that made 2004 the voter vault election.
Everyone who provides training in campaign techniques and tactics agree: conservatives have the best campaign training program in the country. I've never talked to anyone who disagreed that the Leadership Institute was the best campaign training program in the country. A sample agenda [PDF] suggests why. The Leadership Institute has trained tens of thousands of conservative activists in what is now Republican campaign doctrine, effectively not only using the same techniques and tactics but actually using the same terminology for them.
Democracy for America has done yeoman's work trying to erase the training gap with Republicans. In fact, you ought to support DFA if for no other reason that all the training opportunities they provide Democrats and progressive activists. There are other Democratic-leaning groups who provide similar (although, from what I can see, inferior) training programs. But it is the Obama campaign that has kicked the door open on training activists in campaign techniques and tactics on the Democratic side.
Barack Obama emphasized training from the beginning. Camp Obama began, iirc, in the summer of 2007. A number of its Field Organizers (and uprooted volunteers) came out of the ranks of Camp Obama. The second major training program undertaken by the campaign was the Obama Organizing Fellows, some of whom are expected to be offered Field Organizer work for the Fall. And, again, the Obama campaign is offering Camp Obama trainings, this time for "Deputy Field Organizers." The advantage of the Obama training approach is that -- like the Leadership Institute -- it is training activists in a uniform campaign doctrine, with the same terminology and uniform expectations, something that is undoubtedly new to Democratic politics.
While no one can expect even the Obama campaign to train the number of activists that the Leadership Institute has trained over 27 years, it is entirely possible that it has trained the same number of activists who will actually be in the field from the Leadership Institute. That will be a huge improvement over prior cycles.
There is no question that the Obama campaign learned valuable lessons from Kerry's loss in 2004 and analyzed how Bush won re-election. They have been able to neutralize long-standing Republican advantages and perhaps even will exceed Republicans in some of these areas. The Obama campaign has always benefited from being underestimated, and struggled when expectations were higher than usual. Polls show a tight race for the fall, but the polls may never show the advantage that having thousands of staff, uprooted volunteers and committed activists in the field -- at least not until election day. It's not just that the Obama campaign has a sophisticated plan for winning in November, but that they are concentrating resources on how to implement that plan. Obama may have come out of nowhere, but he's bringing a lot of people with him...