Category Archives: 2012 Republican primaries

Next steps for Romney?

It continues to look like Mitt Romney will be the Republican candidate for President in the fall. While he is still fighting a war of attrition with Rick Santorum, it will take a major game changer for him to lose the primary. So it is no surprise that he is increasingly orienting himself towards the general election.

What can the course of the campaign so far tell us about the challenges Romney will face and how he will try to tackle them?

The drawn-out primary has been a mixed blessing, forcing Romney to cater to a conservative base out of touch with many Americans, forcing him to spent time and money battling right-wing rivals when he would have preferred to train his guns on President Obama. It has also exposed some issues that Romney and his campaign will have to content with moving forward.

In short, Republicans aren’t really fired up about their likely Presidential candidate, and some may not be bothered to vote for him. This is a problem in what may very well be a very close race.

Moving to the general election, Romney has to make his pitch to independent voters, but also do his utmost to build a platform and an organization that can help him bring out the conservative base. If there is one thing Karl Rove taught us about American politics, it is that you cannot and should not take the base for granted, but actively cater to it and work to bring it out (his so-called “base-strategy”). The idea that simply not being Obama will do this for Romney is dangerous. The President is certainly not popular on the right, but Romney will need to fight for every vote, conservative or independent, to win in the fall.

Romney’s well-funded and professionally managed campaign organization has been highlighted as one of his advantages throughout the primary. As he begins to re-tool for the general election (while still dealing with Santorum et al at the same time), it will need to expand its presence on the ground and built a network of active supporters in all the potential battleground states. A proper field operation capable of getting out the vote is hard to put together on short notice. It takes time and effort to cultivate the relationships that animate a good ground game.

One of the advantages of the fiercely fought 2008 Democratic primary was that it left Obama with an organizational presence and strong supporter base across the country that also helped him fight and win the general election. In contrast, it is not clear that the Romney campaign has managed to maintain its presence even in states where it won the GOP primary. As Ed Pilkington and Amanda Michel from the Guardian writes

Romney until recently had three offices in Florida, all directed to his primary battle against Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul. Yet despite the fact that no Republican has won the White House while losing Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924, Romney closed all three offices after the January 31 primary.

Calls to the main number of Romney’s Florida headquarters are sent to voicemail; the mailbox is full and will not accept further messages.

For all the talk about inevitability, it seems the Romney campaign is still mostly oriented towards winning the next primary states and has only just begun re-tooling for the general election. (I haven’t been able to find information on whether they remain active on the ground in Ohio and Virginia, it would be interesting to know.)

If they want to build an organization capable of fighting Obama for every inch in every contested state, they will need to maintain and continually expand a presence on the ground across the country. At the moment, they do not seem to be doing this. Come November, they may find there is a price to be paid for that.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It has just been published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.

(cross-posted to Politics in Spires)

(image from the Mitt Romney campaign’s Flickr stream)

Nothing “super” about Super Tuesday

Super Tuesday came and went, and I’m not sure people in the ten states involved felt it was all that “super”.

Despite some Republican party activists asserting this is the most important Presidential Election since George Washington was elected (no, really), voter turnout in several cases was lower than in the 2008 Republican Primary. Many of those who did vote were not enthusiastic about any of the candidates running (according to the Washington Post, “Barely more than four out of 10 voters in Ohio said they were strongly behind their candidate, according to exit polls”). And people aren’t enjoying the spectacle of the campaign itself either—the New York Times quotes a couple from Ohio complaining about the “barrage of ads” and “the phone calls, ugh … We get 15 a day.” (They must be new to the Buckeye State. It will get worse in November.)

At this point it seems clear that, barring some major mistake, damaging revelation, or outside event, Mitt Romney will grind his way to the Republican nomination. It is also clear that it is likely to take months. Rick Santorum in particular has no reason to concede at this point. It is not clear that he has any real chance of winning the nomination. (Josh Putnam at Frontloading HQ has been crunching the numbers and makes a strong case it is highly improbably that Santorum, let alone Gingrich or Paul, can actually win the primary without dramatically improving their performance. The Washington Post has a similar analysis here.) But Santorum’s campaign is kept afloat by the lack of whole-hearted support for Romney in the Republican primary electorate, by media coverage, by outside money, and by the appearance of momentum off the back of a favourable electoral geography/timetable. He will probably do well in Kansas, Alabama, and Mississippi, the next states to vote—all southern, all primed for his folksy style and conservative message—but from late March and onwards, the demography swings in Romney favour as Illinois votes. In April, a raft of North-Eastern states have their primaries, states that Romney will probably win quite clearly on his way to locking up the nomination.

In 2008, the Republican Primary was over after Super Tuesday, the preponderance of winner-takes-all systems for allocating delegates meant that John McCain was comfortably ahead in the delegate count at an early point in time. Out of ten states to vote before February 6, 2008, McCain had won only three (New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida) Of the 21 that voted on Super Tuesday that year, he won 9, for a total of 12 out of 31. Mitt Romney, by comparison, had won a total 11 by then—but conceded the next day, accepting that there was no clear path for him to the nomination. In 2012, Romney has won 14 states out of 22 (including Ohio), and Santorum 6, but changes to how delegates are awarded means that Santorum retains a sheen of viability that will only be increased if he racks up more victories in the next couple of states. (It is an interesting question of how one covers this as a journalist—there is a danger to pronouncing people winners before they have actually won. Compare the New York Times coverage, which is very cautious about crowning Romney as the likely nominee, with the Washington Post, which is much less circumspect.)

Why this change to the rules, changes that keep Santorum alive and kicking where he would have been dead and buried under the old rules? After 2008, Republican Party leaders came to the conclusion that the drawn-out Obama-Clinton primary contest was actually an advantage for the Democratic Party, giving their candidates more exposure, battle-testing them, forcing them to built their campaigns across the country. Hence, as Karen Tumulty writes in the Washington Post, in the new system—

“The GOP nomination contest was designed to play out more slowly than in the past. Through the end of this month, states are required to allocate their delegates in proportion to the votes each candidate receives. That means just about everyone comes away from just about every contest with something to show for it — and a rationale for continuing to the next one.”

It is not clear this is working out very well for the Republican Party. As Dan Balz notes in the Washington Post, “Romney is in worse shape at this point in the campaign than virtually all recent previous nominees.” The exposure, the incessant negative campaigning, the party-internal wrangling and the rest of it is not working to the GOP’s advantage. Balz continues—

“Demographically, [Romney’s] image among independent voters, the most critical swing group, is more negative now than it was when the primary battle began. He could be hurt among women. He is in trouble with Latinos, a growing part of the electorate that is tilting even more Democratic than it was four years ago. He is not as strong as he needs to be among working-class white voters, among whom President Obama has been consistently weak.

Geographically, the numbers from several key states have been discouraging for the former Massachusetts governor. Pre-primary polls in Ohio, Virginia and Michigan showed him running behind Obama by low double digits. Ohio is a must-win for the Republican nominee in the fall, and Virginia is a state the GOP is determined to take back from the president. Republicans once thought Michigan would be a possible battleground, but at this point it isn’t.“

Every Republican Party leader, operative, and activist who looks at the trajectory of the primary will have to consider whether the drawn-out contest is undermining the party’s prospects in the fall. Many are clearly pushing hard for the GOP to rally around Romney.

But as long as Santorum and the rest insists on plugging on, their wealthy backers are willing to bankroll them, and between a third and half the Republican primary electorate keeps on voting for them, they can do it. Hence, while Super Tuesday gave Romney a string of victories (and important ones at that), it was more like another day at the office than a particularly “super” day for him too. Both he and many voters would probably wish for this to be over sooner rather than later. But Romney will just have to grind his teeth and grind his rivals down, week after week, state after state, driving away independent and alienating party activists simply by not being as conservative as they are, while President Obama and his people built his re-election campaign and prepares for the final showdown in the fall.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It has just been published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.

(cross-posted to Politics in Spires)

Does Nevada mean that conservatives have begun to “rally” around Romney? Not really

The overall result of the Nevada caucus—a clear Mitt Romney victory—was so predictable that I haven’t really been following the campaign there and hadn’t planned to write about it. But then some of the media coverage of the result is interesting and amnesic enough to merit a few words.

First the result, from AP via Google: Romney 50%, Gingrich 21%, Paul 19%, and Santorum 10%. Turnout little short of 33,000 voters.

What does that mean? According to Michael O’Brian writing on MSNBC/NBC, “Saturday’s caucus reflect an instance in which Romney was able to rally conservatives to his candidacy.” Chris McGreal writes for the Guardian that “Republican voters of various shades [now] latch on to Romney as the best prospect of beating Barack Obama.”

Wait a minute. Romney is the clear favourite to secure the Republican nomination, but it is not at all clear that the Nevada result suggests that conservatives are now rallying around him.

Why? Well, we could compare the 2012 results with 2008, for example—Romney 51%, Ron Paul 14%, John McCain 13% and the rest sharing the remaining 22%. Turnout? More than 44,000 voters. (The difference is clear from my highly sophisticated combo of the Wikipedia pages on 2008 and 2012 below, an example of the power of what Larry Lessig calls “remix culture“…)

In other words, Romney, the candidate that Republicans are now supposedly “rallying” around, and who came into Nevada with considerable momentum, who has a clear organizational and financial advantage, and who faced very little serious resistance on the ground as his rivals had given up the state in advance, got more votes in 2008 than in 2012. And not just a little– he got about a third more votes back then if you look at the absolute numbers. (16,486 in 2012, versus 22,649 in 2008.)

There are no doubt many reasons for this result that I won’t comment on here. But one thing I would venture to say is that it suggests that the Republican base is yet to accept Romney as their man. His campaign continues to have to fight on two fronts at the same time–making a broad-based appeal to the American people with an eye to the November general election while convincing the (diverse) conservative core of the Republican Party that they should support him too.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It has just been published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.

“Hi, I’m a volunteer with the Mitt Romney campaign, calling you from my computer…”

So Mitt Romney won what the Washington Post calls a “decisive victory” in Florida yesterday, and while the Republican presidential primary isn’t quite over (a majority of the votes still went to his three remaining rivals, donations keep coming in to Newt Gingrich especially), the former Massachusetts governor is now well-positioned to lock up the nomination on “Super Tuesday,” March 6, where people in eleven states cast their votes.

If Romney becomes the candidate, a closer look at his current campaign can help us understand how he will fight the general election. In past cycles, most recently of course in 2008, the way candidates fought their primary gave many clues to how they ended up fighting the general election—in terms of their stage persona and their main message, yes, but also in terms of how their effort was organized in a more practical sense.

Building a campaign organization, mobilizing allies around it, and recruiting thousands of low-level staffers and volunteers is not something that is easily done overnight, and the wider campaign build around a particular candidacy will have its own internal inertia and idiosyncrasies, traits that often reflect decisions made months or even years before Election Day on the basis of a combination of received wisdom and the priorities of individual people involved. Once things are done in a particular way, unless something is clearly dysfunctional, intense time pressure and the multiple concerns always calling for the attention of the candidate and senior staff generally mean they continue to be done that way.

Take the 2008 Obama campaign as an example—the kernel was assembled from early 2007 onwards, with staffers plotting strategy and tactics, technologists developing the tools and infrastructures for an extensive, nation-wide effort, and organizers connecting with the multitudes of willing volunteers who helped power Obama to victory in both the primary and the general election. As for example David Plouffe, the campaign manager, has made clear, even as the campaign (both the formal organization and the wider network of allies and volunteers around it) grew and grew, senior staffers were working hard to maintain a basic set of organizing principles and a certain internal ethos that had worked well in the primary. (Sometimes dealing with enthusiastic groundswells of support from people unaccustomed to how campaigns are usually run in a pretty top-down fashion was in fact something of a challenge, as David Axelrod himself has noted.) As my friend Daniel Kreiss shows in his very interesting forthcoming book on the development of the campaign and the technologies and tools it relied on, many of the innovations we today associate with the 2008 Obama campaign where in fact pioneered, tested, and refined in the years before. (Just as the 2000 and 2004 Bush campaigns built on years of experimentation in local and state-level races, orchestrated by Karl Rove.)

On this basis, let’s have a look at just two features of the Romney primary campaign that it will be interesting to follow as we move forward—

  • How much volunteer support does Romney actually have? Many commentators have made much of how parts of the Republican base have yet to warm to his candidacy, but beyond a general “mood” amongst the party faithful, can he draw substantial numbers of people to his campaign? Beyond the raw numbers, can his campaign work constructively with these people to make sure that they feel involved and continue to contribute their time and effort?  Volunteers have generally been found to be more effective ambassadors for campaigns on the doorstep and over the phone than paid casual workers, so whoever builds the best volunteer operation will have an edge over his rival. (Turnout in US presidential elections has been increasing every cycle since 1996, in part due to increased emphasis on field campaigns. Given the current economic climate and a certain sense of disillusionment, in the absence of major get-out-the-vote efforts on both sides, 2012 may see the first fall in popular participation in sixteen years.)
  • How will his campaign work with the volunteers who do come? Throughout the primary, Romney’s campaign has made a priority of having a physical presence on the ground, opening campaign offices and posting contact details in relevant states to make sure people have somewhere to go. His campaign has also embraced the various online-enabled forms of “distributed phone banking” pioneered by MoveOn and others, where supporters can log on via a campaign website and make calls directly to target voters in relevant states from their own smart phone or computer. In both cases, the campaign has quite sensibly been platform agnostic, deciding to make as many different forms of engagement possible and to meet potential volunteers where ever they may come from. In both cases, the campaign has also prioritized channelling people’s time and energy into phone banking, a demonstrably effective way of trying to sway people and turn out voters.

At a general level, coverage of the primary will often stress how Romney’s campaign is well-funded and professionally run. But money and hard-nosed expertise is not all an effective campaign needs. The interface between campaign staffers in it to win it and volunteers with a much wider and mixed set of motivations can generate considerable friction and requires mutual empathy and a practical sense for making people work together that is sometimes lacking from political campaigns. And it matters. Volunteer mobilization and the translation of volunteers’ time and effort into instrumentally useful activities may sound dry and dull in comparison to the more immediately exciting speculation about what the next campaign advertisement will highlight or how the candidate will perform in the next debate. But both are crucial parts of a competitive campaign and shape how it is possible for ordinary people to take part in the electoral process beyond casting their vote. That’s why it will be interesting to see how the eventual Republican nominee ends up organizing his effort to challenge Obama’s re-election campaign.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It has just been published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.

(cross-posted on Politics in Spires)

Gingrich needs an organization (and fast)

Newt Gingrich’s clear come-from-behind victory in the January 21 South Carolina primary has made the Republican Presidential Primary a lot more exciting than it looked after Iowa and New Hampshire.

Clearly, many Republicans remain reluctant to embrace Romney. If the opposition coalesce around Gingrich, the not-Romney of the moment, the party is in for a long grind of a primary.

One question right now is whether Gingrich has the organization to make the most of his momentum.

Florida, January 31, is the first test. Romney has been ahead in the polls there lately, but his support is eroding and as recently as December, Gingrich had a solid lead. The political climate in the sunshine state can be fickle and is prone to dramatic changes. It serves one well to be well prepared.

In South Carolina, Gingrich was able to build on his strong debate performances, “earned media”, i.e. news coverage playing up alternatives to the front-runner, and the self-reinforcing momentum generated as more and more people came to see him as the most credible challenger to rally a plurality of the non-Romney vote around him. If Santorum drops out now or his supporters begin to think that a vote for him is a vote wasted, Gingrich has the potential to be a considerable challenge for Romney.

But “the Mitt” seems better equipped for the tough grind ahead. While he continues to have a “base problem”, he does better than anyone else in hypothetical match-ups against President Obama, lending credence to his argument he is best positioned to do well in the November general election.

Romney also has a much stronger operation in place to fight for the margins in every upcoming state. Consider just money, organization, and organized support–

Money. A long multi-state primary is expensive. Romney has raised much more money than Gingrich. In the last quarter of 2011, he raised $24 million, compared to Gingrich’s $9 million.

Organization. A long multi-state primary is also complicated to coordinate and involves a lot of hard work on the ground. Romney has his organization, data infrastructure, web presence etc in place nationally. He is very active in states like Florida, where his campaign has been working for months, both on the air and on the ground (Gingrich opened his office there January  13). Romney also already has an office in Nevada (caucuses February 4). It is not clear that the Gingrich campaign has any real presence there. In December, a local operative working with his campaign told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that there were no immediate plans to open an office in the state. (That is bound to change after his South Carolina win.)

Organized support. A long multi-state primary is not something you want to fight on your own. Romney is not only racking up endorsements, fundraising contacts, inside advice etc from establishment Republicans afraid Gingrich just might win and wreck the party in the process. He also enjoys greater Super PAC/ “outside” support. Even after Sheldon Adelson’s headline-grabbing $5 million donation to the pro-Gingrich-though-in-no-way-coordinating-with-his-campaign “Winning Our Future” super PAC, Romney continues to enjoy more support. The pro-Romney group “Restore Our Future,” run by two key staffers from his 2008 campaign, has spent more than double the amount of “Winning our Future” so far. It will provide a handy vehicle for people keen to stop Gingrich but reluctant to back Romney directly.

Where does that leave Gingrich? Can he build on yesterday’s result? Here is what Mac Stipanovich, a GOP strategist in Florida, had to say to the LA Times:

“Romney has worked the state continuously, one way or another, for the last six years. …  Gingrich lacks both the organization and the financial resources to capitalize on a win in South Carolina.”

That may just be true of the February states Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and Michigan too.

Good organization does not guarantee victory, but it sure helps. If Gingrich is to compete in the long run, he and his supporters need to build a stronger and more resourceful campaign now to capitalize on the anti-Romney sentiment. Otherwise, “the Mitt” will grind them down.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It will be published in February 2012 by Princeton University Press and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

(cross-posted on Politics in Spires)

Mitt Romney–ahead in the data race?

Mitt Romney won an unsurprising victory in New Hampshire January 10. The question now is, can he tighten his grip on the Republican nomination before the month is over with two more wins in South Carolina (January 21) and Florida (January 31)?

If more races end up as close as Iowa—8 votes separating Romney and Rick Santorum—quality targeting of voter contact could be decisive.

When it comes to this, Romney has an advantage over most rivals, beyond his money, his momentum, and his lead in the polls—he has a well-developed, functioning, and battle-tested targeting infrastructure in place. He seems to be ahead in the GOP data race.

Writing on Slate, Sasha Issenberg (I’m eagerly awaiting his forthcoming book, The Victory Lab) has a nice piece reviewing how the campaign has been combining detailed individual-level data from consumer companies, voter files, and campaign-collected ID-data from both 2007-2008 and the current cycle to develop a detailed picture of solid and likely supporters and who might be persuaded if approached in the right fashion with the right message.

The point of targeting is very simple—if you know who to talk to and what to talk about, you get more bang for your buck (or out of your volunteers’ efforts).

Rommey’s campaign is still working with TargetPoint Consulting and Alex Gage, who pioneered the use of predictive modelling for voter contacts back in 2002 when Romney was running for Governor of Massachusetts and successfully branded it as “microtargeting.” Though some say Ron Paul also has a sophisticated targeting operation going (I’d be interested to read more on this, so send any links you have my way), Romney seems a step ahead of most of the other Republican candidates in this respect, a considerable advantage in the coming primaries. Newt Gingrich may know roughly how many percent of the electorate supports him in a given state. The Romney campaign will have an analytically-based sense of which individuals in the electorate in a given state support their guy. That makes persuasion and get-out-the-vote efforts a good deal easier and more effective.

Here is how one Republican strategist, speaking to the LA Times, describes the situation after New Hampshire:

“The larger the state is, the harder it is to do effective voter contact — because there’s more people to contact, identify and recontact,” said Charlie Black, a strategist for 2008 GOP nominee John McCain who has informally offered advice to Romney from time to time this cycle. “The underdog candidates, even if they got hot and won a primary, don’t have time to develop and install this kind of system in a matter of weeks. “It’s expensive. It’s part of having a sophisticated national campaign that’s well-funded,” Black said, “and they’re really the only such campaign out there this time.”

Rick Santorum’s surprise surge in Iowa shows that being in the right place at the right time can get you a good result, but anyone hoping to beat Romney to the nomination will have to prepare for the long haul, and that involves building the kind of ground war operation, with organizers, volunteers, and quality targeting, that few other Republican candidates seem to have at this time.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It will be published in February 2012 by Princeton University Press and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

After the debates, a turn to the ground?

Now that the final debate before the Iowa caucus is over and till voting begins January 3, the candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination will have to rely on advertising, direct mail, and field operations more than the media coverage each debate has generated. Two more debates are crammed in in the few days between Iowa and the New Hampshire primary, and more are to come, but for a few weeks, there will be more action on the ground than in the television studios.

With Newt Gingrich’s having surged in recent weeks as the latest in a succession of “not-Mitt-Romney”-candidates, Romney, for a long time the front-runner and likely nominee, has a few decisive weeks ahead of him. Real Clear Politics’ poll averages suggest Gingrich could win both Iowa (January 3) and South Carolina (January 21) while Romney remain ahead in New Hampshire (January 10).

With the race still very fluid and Gingrich’s support in the polls showing some signs of weakness, things are still very much up in the air, but as he faces all the challenges ahead, Romney seems to have one clear operational advantage that is rarely mentioned in the news–his organization on the ground. The Financial Times is one of the few news organizations that have paid much attention to this side of the contest, and as their reporters note, “Mr Gingrich has little grassroots organisation to replace the platform the debates have given him.”

Especially in low-turnout, high-stakes contests like the early caucuses and primaries, literally every vote counts, and Romney, in contrast to the recently revived Gingrich, has for months been building an organization on the ground in several states to gather information about supporters and swing voters and to court voters in a personal fashion.

Here is how one Romney adviser is spinning the difference in New Hampshire (from the FT):

Staffers at Mr Romney’s office brush off Mr Gingrich’s recent gains in the polls, saying he has neither the ground operation to compete nor the volunteers who are the lifeblood of a state primary campaign. “In three days, we can turn out people for a big rally. Newt can’t do that stuff,” said one of Mr Romney’s advisers. “It’s not rocket science; it’s about old-fashioned shoe leather. We have identified 20,000 or 30,000 people who like Mitt Romney. Newt Gingrich has no idea who likes Newt Gingrich.”

In a time of social media and 24/7 rolling news, canvassing and phone banking can seem hopelessly old-fashioned, frustratingly slow, and to small-scale to make much of a difference, but campaigns are increasingly orchestrating personalized contacts on a very large scale and research gives us good reason to think that a knock on the door or a call from an enthusiastic and/or well-trained person represent some of the most effective ways of swaying people politically.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out as the Republican primaries remain very much in flux. Especially in a potentially drawn-out and close contest, hard work by people on the ground may produce a surprise or two along the way as the nomination is decided over the next months–as it did in the Obama/Clinton contest in 2008.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It will be published in February 2012 by Princeton University Press and is available for pre-order on Amazon.