Did Microtargeting Hurt or Help GOP's Voter Turnout Efforts?

Twelve years after the Republican Revolution began, voters summarily tossed the majority out of office on November 7. Too many House Republicans became, to quote Dean Wermer in the movie Animal House: “fat, drunk and stupid.”

As a conservative there is no more apropos quote to describe the blithering rebuke the American people laid on the doorstep of House Republicans.

On election night, most Republicans activists were asking different questions of how we lost, but the question asked of me a thousand times was: “What happened to that vaunted microtargeting turnout operation that was going to save the day for Republicans?” It’s a great question, and although microtargeting voters did help turn out the Republican vote in 2006, I also think it may have hurt them as well—a lesson I learned with the 2005 state elections in Virginia.

Microtargeting is a new technological voter identification tool, first used in the 2004 re-election of President Bush. It combines consumer data and polling data to create a voter model based on the issues the voter cares about most. For example: The model would state that John Smith has a 75% chance of being pro-life and voting for candidates who support pro-life policies. Thus a candidate would target that voter on pro-life issues (through door-to-door, volunteer phoning and direct mail get-out-the-vote efforts).

Under the right circumstances microtargeting is effective and incredibly powerful. But I firmly believe those circumstances must exist within a positive or neutral political environment for Republicans.

As a prelude to 2006, the Virginia elections of 2005 demonstrated when Republicans run into a negative political environment, they cannot rely exclusively on microtargeting data to guide their GOTV efforts. The microtargeting data for Northern Virginia in 2005 listed a specific cross-section of voters, identified varying issues they cared about most, and an assigned percentage of reliability that stated to what degree of certainty these voters supported a specific issue.

During the 2004 presidential re-election campaign, microtargeting turnout efforts proved wildly successful and I believe it was the primary reason President Bush won Ohio, the pivotal state in that contest. But the political environment was neutral-positive for President Bush and the microtargeting data remained reliable from start to finish.

In 2005, the political environment turned sour by mid-summer and never relented. The factors have been discussed ad nauseum, but let’s recap: Iraq, Katrina, pork-barrel spending and the Abramoff scandal.

Due to the proximity of Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia voters became frustrated with the Republican Party much sooner than the rest of the country and our candidates, specifically Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore, faced an intensely negative political climate. Nevertheless, we still believed our vaunted turnout machine—based on microtargeting data—would save the day.

We had every reason to believe it would work in Virginia in 2005 based on past performance of party turnout operations (that gained seats in the 2002 midterms, 2003 governor races and 2004 House, Senate and presidential races).

In addition, Republicans put much more time, money and effort into their Virginia get-out-the-vote operations in the 2005 elections (as opposed to the 2004 elections where the Kerry-Edwards ticket wasn’t very competitive statewide). But the final result turned out starkly different as Republican Jerry Kilgore handily lost to Democrat Tim Kaine.

What went wrong? Many factors led to Kilgore’s defeat; message, strategy and a negative political environment, which resulted in a flawed microtargeting turnout operation.

I served in the trenches of Northern Virginia and I saw the microtargeting modeling data and how it was utilized. After my grassroots staff received that data, I directed them to call each list and verify their results. What I found was frightening and mind-boggling. Voters who were microtargeted and estimated to be pro-life at a 75%-90% confidence rate (meaning 75%-90% chance that a voter will vote for a candidate who supports the pro-life position), were actually measured at an average rate of 45%-50%—suggesting that half of our get-out-the-vote turnout universe would be voting for the Democrat candidate for governor, Tim Kaine.

In addition, many microtargeted voters who professed to voting for pro-life candidates in the past indicated that they didn’t care whether our candidates shared their values; they were fed up with Republicans and were ready to vote against them (we found similar patterns with microtargeted anti-tax voters as well).  

After reviewing the test results from our phone bank, I tossed the microtargeting data to the side and relied on the traditional method of having our volunteers call voters directly and identify the issues and candidates they supported. Unfortunately, this did not happen elsewhere and thousands of Republican volunteers hit the streets to turnout voters for Democrat gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine. The result was a crushing 52%-46% loss for Jerry Kilgore.

In Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County, for example, Kilgore lost to Kaine 60%-38%. Compare that to 2004 when Bush/Cheney lost to Kerry/Edwards 53%-46%.

There is no question that microtargeting data is an incredibly powerful tool under the right political circumstances. Unfortunately, 2006 was the wrong political environment for Republicans around the country. I am convinced that in a negative political climate, Republicans shouldn’t strictly follow microtargeting modeling as GOTV gospel, and safeguards should be put in place to verify the data.

There is good news. Republican Party leaders are disciplined and constantly evaluate and try to improve from past performance (whether positive or negative) and I have no doubt that that process is currently underway.

Twelve years ago Republican neophytes vowed to change the system and shake things up in Washington, D.C. Republican get-out-the-vote strategists should vow to do the same and adapt to all political environments.

Otherwise we are doomed to repeat history.