Presidential Campaigns Focusing On Get-Out-The-Vote Operations

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Forget Big Bird, binders and bayonets.

For the next two weeks it’s going to be all about getting that distracted college sophomore to honor her commitment card, or boots on the ground, or “the door program.”

As President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, remain locked in a tight race for the presidency, the time for wooing undecideds is passing, and in seven battleground states both campaigns are switching to ground-game mode, promising get-out-the-vote operations unprecedented in recent political history.

Not to mention efficient.

“Campaigns have learned to use their resources much more efficiently,” said Michael McDonald, at the United States Elections Project and an associate professor at George Mason University.

“There are apps now instead of paper contact lists, with lists of persuadable voters, where volunteers can download information instantly and the campaign can upload it back into the database, virtually in real time.”

Sorting out the undecided voter from the sporadic voter, or from the high propensity voter to the late breaking voter, is a more data-driven exercise than ever before, and more influenced by behavioral psychology.

At the University of Pittsburgh’s Student Union, Lara Sullivan, head of the school’s College Democrats, has been working for weeks with Obama for America student volunteers, handing out cards for students — a demographic notorious for not voting — to fill out, pledging to vote for Mr. Obama, why, where and when.

Then, sometime next week, Ms. Sullivan said, the “commit cards” will be sent back to the students.

“It’s a really a great system,” she said. “We just got a batch of cards from the Obama campaign last week, that say, ‘I’m pledging to vote for Barack Obama because …’ and then the student fills in the blanks, women’s rights, student loans, Pell grants, whatever. I have a really great sense it’s going to work because they’re basically signing something remembering why they’re voting.”

There’s psychology behind all of this, says Sasha Issenberg, author of “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.” A written pledge to vote, in effect a public declaration within a peer group, will make it more likely the pledger will actually go to the polls, he said.

These days, “campaigns have very granular projections about how likely every single voter in Pennsylvania will be to cast the ballot” and how to get them to the polls, he said.

Sussing out why people vote or don’t vote isn’t rocket science, but it is behavioral science — refined during the 2004 and 2008 campaigns by “maverick operatives and academics now calling the shots in some of the most cutting-edge war room,” according to “The Victory Lab” website. These days, Mr. Issenberg argues, “the smartest campaigns now believe they know who you will vote for even before you do.”

That claim may be a tad overwrought, but as the endgame intensifies, political strategists have learned how not to waste their time on people they know will vote, but rather on those who might — emphasis on might — not.

“What’s changed in the last decade through all these findings are psychological techniques for motivating someone to do what they’re not used to doing,” Mr. Issenberg said.

And because the two campaigns are far more sophisticated at harvesting information about “turnout targets” — using consumer databases, credit card monitoring agencies, past voting records and other material — they can make more accurate decisions about allocating resources, deciding whether they have the time, money and volunteers to woo someone who is 40 percent likely to vote as opposed to someone who is 50 percent likely to vote.

On Tuesday, Mr. Obama’s campaign announced it was releasing 3.5 million copies of a new, 20-page booklet of his agenda for the next four years, with an abbreviated version online and 1.5 million copies distributed to field offices in the seven battleground states — Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, New Hampshire, Virginia, Florida, and Wisconsin.

“That’s not a get-out-the-vote tool, that’s a persuasion tool,” said Mr. Issenberg, aimed at influencing a tight race a few points in one direction or another. “Those are the people you give a policy document to. What works in voter mobilization isn’t issues but social and psychological tools.”

Social media are playing a larger role in get-out-the-vote efforts this year. The AFL-CIO has launched Workers’ Voice Friends and Neighbors, an online social phone bank launched in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Massachusetts, Nevada, Wisconsin and Florida, allowing activists to match Facebook friends to a voter list. Also, non-partisan apps like NationBuilder, Votizen, WeforPresident and the “I Voted” app are designed to encourage political participation.

The Obama for America website notes that “Making phone calls and knocking on doors aren’t the only ways supporters can have an impact on this campaign,” going on to tout the Obama Facebook app: “share stories, videos, voter registration info, and other campaign activities with friends while also helping the Obama campaign reach a much broader audience not already on their site.”

Both campaigns are using psychological and social techniques to figure out how to improve voter turnout, along with “microtargeting,” that much ballyhooed technique used during the past decade to supposedly learn about voters through the cars they drive or the magazine they subscribe to. But neither side is talking about it.

“We don’t share a lot of that,” said Billy Pitman, Pennsylvania victory communications director at the Republican National Committee, instead stressing old-fashioned personal face time — 4.5 million individual voter contacts in the Keystone state since the day Mr. Romney won the GOP nomination.

As more and more people forego landlines for cell phones, “There’s a renewed emphasis on doors,” he said, with a million homes already visited this election season.

Plus, he added, enthusiasm. While the Obama operation in Pennsylvania has many more campaign offices than Romney’s, “I would argue that in terms of enthusiasm and the number of volunteers on the ground, we have seen a major uptick of support in this election cycle, especially after the first debate.”

In Ohio, early voting is allowed, and every registered voter was sent an absentee voter form, prompting more than 800,000 to vote early — an unprecedented number, according to Mr. McDonald. “At this rate, there isn’t going to be anyone left to vote on Election Day.”

In Pennsylvania, though, early voting is not allowed, so it may come down to boots on the ground or commitment cards, although Anthony Christina, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of College Republicans in State College, is skeptical.

“I don’t know that signing a commitment card impacts you if you were already planning to vote to begin with,” he said.

“If you’re going to vote, and you affirm that, then you have made that promise and you are more likely to vote than not,” countered Mr. McDonald, noting that various apps take full advantage of that psychology, “where your friends can see whether you voted or not.”

For much of the last few decades, campaigns were more about television advertising than voter turnout, but both sides “have rediscovered the old machine politics of the 19th century,” noted Mr. McDonald.

The Obama campaign may have more offices, more staff and more metrics, but “their voters aren’t as good at taking themselves to the polls. We know that peer-to-peer contact is the most effective way of increasing participation. You get a trusted individual to contact a neighbor, a friend or a relative, and turnout rates increase a lot.”

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