Friday, March 10, 2006

Conventional wisdom, voter targeting and community organizing

(This post is one in a series based on work for a project that will assist grassroots community groups to find their way into working with and for their constituencies in elections.)

Political campaigns, like military leaders, are always fixated on the last war. From the point of view of the folks who organize and fund campaigns, the "last war" was the Kerry campaign in 2004. Many believe that losing effort targeted avaiable field resources poorly. At best they characterize the GOTV effort, though sizable, as ineffectual and inefficient. This easily hardens into a conventional belief that Democratic targeting was wrong in absolute terms; instead the notion gains force that Dems should look at what the Republicans do and do likewise.

Though the actual practice was far more nuanced than this description, a major premise underlying Democratic voter targeting in 2004 was that, since most people poll in agreement with Democratic positions, simply raising turnout among known Democratic constituencies should be enough to push a Dem into office. The fact that Al Gore won the popular vote though losing in 2000 seemed to support that idea. So did the readily observable reality that turnout is lower among people of color, low income folks, and young people. Insofar as these groups have political stances, they are likely to vote Democratic.

Consequently, various independent expenditure committees (known by the name of their legal form as "527 committees") put a lot of money into registering and turning out high numbers of voters in Democratic demographic groups, especially in highly contested swing states. The effort was vibrant, chaotic, and often offended established local players. Although it was certainly also a mess, it is important to understand that much of it succeeded in meeting its goals.
  • The youth vote spiked upwards for the first time since 1992; 18- to 29-year-old turnout was up by 4.6 million voters from the 2000 election according to exit polls.
  • Native American turnout grew by 11 percentage points in 2004 in the states of Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin.
  • Those who lived in swing states generally voted in higher proportions than those who did not. Minnesota, one of the most closely contested states, had the highest turnout rate (79 percent); Hawaii, which the presidential candidates ignored until late in the campaign, had the lowest with 50 percent.
So all that activity wasn't futile -- but Bush won, so obviously it wasn't good enough. And, even more strikingly, Bush won the popular vote as well as the Electoral College.

So what did the Republicans do in 2004? They centralized their turnout efforts through the Party (no anarchic constituency-based 527s for them) and very tightly marketed their product to potential new supporters found by interweaving consumer data with voter data. "Technology help[ed] them gain a percentage point [where they needed it] by courting the right people in the right state with the right message," according an article by Jon Gertner in the New York Times magazine. (This description actually was written before the election, but proved prophetic. Obviously the Republicans also motivated fundamentalists and other conservatives to vote their convictions, but election post-mortems credit the micro-targeting for much of their gains.)

For example, the Republicans apparently focused their efforts among Latino voters on members of Protestant churches, a relatively small part of the Latino community. According to a Pew Hispanic Center report from June 2005:

Religion appears to be linked to President Bush’s improved showing among Hispanics in 2004 over 2000, when he took 34 percent of Latino votes. Hispanic Protestants made up a larger share of the Latino vote last year (32% in 2004 compared with 25% in 2000), and 56 percent of these voters supported the president in 2004, compared with 44 percent in 2000. The president’s share of the Hispanic Catholic vote remained essentially unchanged between 2000 and 2004.

That's micro-targeting in action.

Democrats got the message from these kinds of Republican success. In the most watched gubernatorial race of 2005, conventional wisdom holds that Virginia Democrat Tim Kaine used micro-targeted messages to suburbanites worried about traffic and education to trump Republican Jerry Kilgore's appeal to conservative social issues.

So what does this mean for 2008? It means that community groups wanting to make an argument to political players (the Democratic Party, unions, etc.) that they have a role to play, may find they have to overcome a backlash against the perceived mistakes of 2004.

How to make that argument:
  • Remind your listeners that the voters found by sophisticated micro-targeting have to be added on to a strong base vote. You will work to get out that base vote. You are uniquely suited for that role.
  • Show that you understand numbers. How many voters can your work add over past performance?
  • Show that you have capacity at scale. Even if you have little electoral experience, you should ask yourself how many volunteers you will mobilize? What previous work supports your claim you can recruit those people? What will you do with them? Again, give numbers.
And understand, nobody will really believe you until you show that you can deliver -- but if you do deliver, you will have a new kind of influence in your community.

Feedback sought -- any suggestions for budding grassroots politicos will be appreciated.

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