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How Democrats Unlocked Karl Rove's Secrets and Propelled Obama to Victory

The new book, "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns" explains how studying Rove's methods helped Democrats win in 2008.

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One of the most important tools at their disposal was a master database that pollster Mark Mellman had built to contain all the interviews conducted by Kerry’s retinue of far-flung survey takers throughout the year. Before the Iowa caucuses, Ken Strasma, a former analyst for the National Committee for an Effective Congress, had conducted a 10,000-person poll to build a statistical model that could identify likely Kerry supporters for the candidate’s voter contact operation to target and turn out for the caucuses. But there was little interest from the campaign’s leadership; Strasma didn’t even speak with the campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, until well after Kerry’s dramatic Iowa victory. “It was just one of the things that wasn’t on her radar screen,” says Strasma. And when it came to talking to voters directly, Kerry’s targeters had trouble getting state directors to put aside their precinct-based strategies and use the new individual-level profiles instead.

That resistance finally began to crack after the election, as victorious Republicans flaunted their fine-grained knowledge of the electorate. In one particularly potent example, Gage told how his party had turned even shopping patterns into political intelligence, discovering that bourbon drinkers leaned Republican while cognac sniffers were more likely Democrats. “It just scared the shit out of all the Democrats,” says Malchow. “The best way to get anyone to do anything on the Democratic side — and I’m sure it’s the reverse on the Republican side — is to tell people that the Republicans are doing it. It doesn’t matter: the Republicans could be doing something completely stupid, but if you tell the Democrats they get scared and think they should do it. They all think the Republicans are smarter than they are.”

As Democrats learned more about the scale of what the Bush campaign had done, they realized that the opposition’s edge wasn’t about a particularly potent set of consumer files it had acquired but rather the political structure they had built around them. No Democrat, and certainly not Kerry, had invested as much in individual-level targeting as Bush had, or did so early enough to integrate it fully into the campaign’s operations. AWashington Post analysis of the $2.2 billion spent on the presidential campaign — split almost evenly between efforts on behalf of Bush and Kerry — concluded that Bush’s $3.25 million contract with Gage’s firm TargetPoint was among the best money spent that year. The Post story pointed to the increase in Bush’s turnout in Ohio, and included one quote from an anonymous Democratic operative declaring that the party’s targeting power was a full election cycle behind the Republicans’.

As Quinn explained these machinations to DeShong, she took out a paper napkin and started diagramming. She drew a line to represent the partisan continuum, from left to right, and then laid upon it a series of bars reflecting targeted messages. One bar symbolized “terrorism and late-term abortion for older Hispanics,” Quinn said, while another of different length was “terrorism and guns for male union members.” DeShong sat dumbfounded by the squiggly lines, until Quinn explained her point: Democrats were polling to make messages for broad audiences, while Republicans were modeling to match messages to specific audiences. They were able to do that because they had not only better data than the Democrats to find the voters they wanted, she went on, but also the statistical tools to profile those they couldn’t reach and nonetheless predict what views they were likely to have.

“Now we have to do it,” Quinn said. “And we have to do it better.”

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