How Democrats Unlocked Karl Rove's Secrets and Propelled Obama to Victory
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Excerpted from "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns."
George W. Bush’s reelection, and the fear that the newfound Republican vote hunting mettle behind it might presage a generation out of power for Democrats, brought new urgency to the left’s previously fitful efforts toward innovation. In late 2004, Laura Quinn called former Democratic National Committee colleague Debra DeShong and asked her to come to the consulting firm Quinn owned. Quinn’s desk was covered with newspaper and magazine clips about how Bush had won, many of them lionizing Karl Rove.
It is common for operatives to spend much of their time trying to figure out what the opposition is up to, but Quinn’s fixation on Rove had risen to the level of obsession. She kept easily accessible on her computer desktop the video of a 1972 CBS News report in which Dan Rather visits the Committee for the Re-Election of the President to marvel at the latest techniques being used to support Richard Nixon’s reelection, including the earliest efforts at data-driven direct-mail fundraising. The correspondent then travels to the basement, where he meets the executive director of the College Republicans, busy plotting Nixon’s youth registration efforts. “Young people have got to reach other young people, and that’s what we’re seeking to do,” says a 21-year-old Karl Rove, decorated with glasses, a tie and vest combination, and luxurious sideburns.
Now, while others who had played a role in Kerry’s campaign were scattered on tropical beaches trying to put 2004 behind them, Quinn found a sense of purpose in her Rove clips. She marveled at the way he had outfoxed the left at the aspects of campaigning where it had claimed mastery, and she was intent on reverse-engineering his methods from the general descriptions that had appeared in newspapers. “She was very upset about losing the election,” DeShong recalls. “But she was so excited that she had figured out what Rove had done.”
In winter 2002, a set of PowerPoint slides had found its way into Democratic hands. The material alerted Democrats that the Republicans had turned their attention to turnout and had developed an intellectual infrastructure for their field operations that towered over anything the institutions of the left had ever built. But hardly any details about Alexander Gage’s microtargeting project had made it into the press during the election. Instead, the stories that had come out about the implementation of 72-Hour tactics had been ones Republicans wanted told. Quinn and her allies suspected that Republicans had sharpened their approach to voter contact, but never knew how.
After the election, Rove and other advisers revealed what they had been up to, taking what Democrats described as a “victory lap” for the so-called microtargeting methods that made them possible. Even though no Democrats had used the word microtargeting, several party operatives had arrived separately at the same basic insight as Gage. They knew large-scale surveys could isolate the influence of personal characteristics that were combining in ways imperceptible to traditional polls, and how to track back to find specific individuals who fit those categories.
A small group of veterans of the Kerry operation known as the BullsEye felt the greatest frustration as they read the press accounts of Gage’s triumph. The BullsEye, which commandeered a small room at headquarters hidden off to the side of the communications war room, was designed to be the tactical hub of Kerry’s general election campaign, where a constant pulse of data from battleground states would help redirect the candidate’s plane or a communications blast to the areas that needed it most.