Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Campaign mechanics

This long, painful and yet still significant political season has begun to throw off accounts of developing campaign tactics that should be of great interest to anyone who cares about political mechanics.

First up, Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, writing at Bloomberg Politics. He points out that the Clinton campaign is using a different organizational structure than past presidential field campaigns, grouping target states not by geography, but by similar demographics and similar campaign challenges. In particular, they seem to be throwing resources at one of the hardest problems in contemporary electoral tactics: how to "get out the vote" when increasing numbers of ballots are cast before Election Day.

The reorganization reflects the fact that the calendar, rather than the map, has been growing ever more important. More than one-quarter of Americans who voted in 2012 did so in ways other than visiting a polling place on Election Day, according to data compiled by University of Florida political scientist Michael P. McDonald.

The share of early voters was significantly higher in several key battlegrounds. In Nevada, for example, nearly twice as many 2012 voters cast ballots at in-person early-vote locations than on election day itself. (Another 8 percent of the total electorate voted by mail-in absentee ballot.) In Florida and North Carolina, the early-voting and Election Day electorates were split about evenly.

“You have to run a significantly different campaign—in terms of timing, number of appearances, your paid spend,” said David Plouffe, manager of Obama’s 2008 campaign and an informal adviser to Clinton’s. “For many people in the campaign that are in early-vote states you don’t care about Election Day.”

Making sure you are targeting your turnout resources on people who you want to vote who have not yet voted is a data heavy enterprise. It does no good to be door knocking and calling people who have already voted; you have to reach out to the right targets. This sort of painstaking work can add a point or two to the candidate's total, but organizing to make it happen involves the choice to invest people power and expense in getting it done over a period of several months. Apparently the Clinton campaign is doing just that.

Issenberg further discussed the campaign tactics he observes this year with Jim Tankersley at the Washington Post. He's very complimentary about the Clinton effort:

I've spent a lot of time reporting on how data-driven innovations play out in the field — how campaigns figure out which doors to knock on, which phones to call, etc. What we're seeing in Hillary's Brooklyn headquarters is, in essence, the trickle-up effect of all those innovations: the midlevel corporate structure rearranging itself to better reflect what's going on at ground level in the field.

To me that reflects an institution that is doing a good job of thinking holistically about these innovations: not just as a series of discrete tools, but rethinking the broader structure of this billion-dollar corporation so that its tools are being deployed more efficiently.

For a guy whose expertise is in modern data intensive campaigning, he's quite interesting about what Trump's campaign is up to. Senior Republicans complain that the real estate mogul is hurting the party by not developing a field operation that would enhance their voter data through its contacts. Party voter files are cumulative edifices, each campaign incrementally increasing the quality of what the file shows about supporters. Trump is doing none of this.

Trump is very much a throwback to that old mass-media world — this is a guy who seems to prize being on the cover of Time or featured in "60 Minutes" above anything else — but has also decided to run for president on the cheap. ...

... I'll say that I think Trump has a more coherent worldview about campaigns than many politicians, and his tactics actually do a pretty good job of reflecting his strategic assumptions. He considers campaigns to be purely a candidate-driven, mass-media exercise. One could also say, perhaps less charitably, that he sees his candidacy as an extension of the mechanism of becoming a celebrity: It's about using television to get in front of as large an audience as possible to get as many people as you can to like you. Even as his campaign has grown and changed, he has been remarkably disciplined at not spending much time or money on anything that doesn't reflect that approach.

Now I think that dramatically fails to appreciate the extent to which campaigns are not just about changing people's opinions to get them to like you. Now more than ever, thanks to partisan polarization, campaigns are about modifying the behavior of people who already like you — getting the unregistered to register, mobilizing infrequent voters to turn out. That is best done through targeted communications that don't involve the candidate.

Issenberg doesn't think Trump's vision of a campaign can succeed, but it is interesting to see the yellow-headed blowhard credited with coherence.

Meanwhile, Brian Beutler at the New Republic has published excerpts from an interview with Becky Bond who was part of the team managing Bernie Sander's field campaign in the primary. She describes what you can do with contemporary technology in the seldom experienced situation in which legions of volunteers take the project into their own hands.

We had a lot of people across the country willing to volunteer, but we didn’t have a lot of money in the early days. So we said, “What if we use all these consumer technologies—like Slack and Google apps—to turn volunteers into the staff of the campaign?” We built a virtual call center that allowed volunteers to organize their own phone banks and call Bernie supporters in key states.

Was this a system you devised on the fly?

It started with what we were using to organize ourselves in the office. We learned that even if people didn’t understand how to use Slack, they wanted Bernie to win so much that they were willing to go outside their comfort zone, learn a new technology, and teach it to others.

Did it work?

We gained so many volunteers, we needed to give them other things to do—an amazing challenge to have. In Iowa, the campaign was using text messaging to communicate with volunteers, and we said, “Hey, we can use that at a huge scale.” That’s how we grew the Text for Bernie program to organize millions of supporters. At its height, we had over a thousand volunteers each texting 100 to 200 Bernie voters on election days.

It takes a lot of very committed, inspired people to make this work -- and the Bernie campaign's results suggest it works best in smaller settings in caucus states where a devoted core can have a maximum impact. Time will tell what can be transferred to more humdrum, but essential, campaigns to elect merely "good enough" candidates to local, state and Congressional office. That's what it is going to take if the Bernie eruption is to leave the mark it aims for.

The Beutler interview with Bond is derived from a fascinating attached podcast which is a much deeper dive into Bernie's field organizing.

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