By Chris Reed | Special to Colorado Watchdog
In Colorado, the Obama campaign and state progressive groups have marshaled the most advanced political marketing techniques yet in an effort to re-inspire the 1.2 million voters who lifted Obama to victory in the state in 2008 — one at a time.
The tool is the political version of microtargeting — developing profiles of individual potential voters and then using that information to shape their decisions.
In the president’s case, that amounts to finding a manipulative button to push — Mitt Romney wants you to have a child every time you have sex, “Jersey Shore” viewers are probably told — to get individual voters to ignore his poor performance over the last four years.
The use of microtargeting in national elections first came to light in 2000, when Karl Rove used it to help elect George W. Bush. Since then, the conventional wisdom is that the Democrats have used microtargeting in even smarter fashion, especially in the 2008 Obama campaign. But even as campaigns refine their ability to woo individual voters, most media still think of campaigns as targeting groups — “soccer moms” being the classic example. It’s easier to explain than microtargeting. (Here’s The New York Times’ attempt in February.)
Microtargeting is particularly refined in Colorado, where four wealthy progressives — software magnates Tim Gill and Rutt Bridges, Internet entrepreneur Jared Polis and Pat Stryker, a wealthy heir — teamed up to establish a sophisticated infrastructure of liberal organizations. They’ve used litigation, online media, a pseudo ethics “watchdog” group and microtargeting to mobilize Democrats and sway independents, who have long made up about a third of the state’s voters.
The result was big gains in Congress and the state legislature in 2004 and 2006 and, in 2008, a Democratic presidential candidate getting a majority of Colorado’s vote for only the second time since 1940.
But in 2010, two Democratic congressmen were ousted and Republicans regained control of the Colorado House of Representatives after six years in the minority. State polls tracked national surveys showing vast voter anger over the struggling economy, Obamacare and huge budget deficits. The same factors that helped Republicans gain 63 House seats around the nation — especially attack ads linking Democratic incumbents to President Barack Obama and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — drove Coloradans into the Republican column.
So what will carry the day in 2012 in Colorado’s presidential race and in the three House seats where incumbents — two Republican, one Democratic — are considered vulnerable?
When it comes to the national media, there’s an obsessive focus on one Colorado group — moderate women voters who don’t like the Obama economy but who don’t like social and religious conservatism — that is seen as key to winning the crucial swing state.
But the real key is a sophisticated version of a very simple narrative: Turnout is all important — and not just of soccer moms. Turnout of all groups. And legal suppression of turnout as well.
Fred Sainz, who worked as director of communications and marketing for Gill’s gay civil rights foundation in Denver and now has the same role at the Washington-based Human Rights Commission, describes an immense gap between how campaigns are actually waged and the tidy narratives offered by most media. Instead of going after categories of voters, microtargeting of voters based on their Internet habits, their credit and work histories, their purchases and more now allows campaigns to personalize their approaches.
Microtargeting allows campaigns to “zone in on the exact voter,” Sainz said in a telephone interview. And Colorado’s progressive forces, he said, are “really in a category of their own” when it comes to integrating such tools with the more traditional politics of campaign rallies, flyers and conventional media advertising.
Microtargeting isn’t just used to change voters’ minds or to get marginal voters to the polls. It’s also used to discourage marginal voters from backing the candidates they would likely support.
Sainz described a calculated effort to promote “disillusionment among social conservatives” over Romney’s record on issues such as abortion, where his views have always seemed more calibrated to his current political needs than to any core beliefs.
It’s easy to see why microtargeting would be valuable in a state like Colorado, which has an unusually large number of what might be called political microclimates for a state of 5 million people — social conservatives (Focus on the Family is based in Colorado Springs); leftist urban professionals and academics (Denver and Boulder); Latino Catholics (17 percent of the state’s population); military families (there are five bases in the state) and veterans; libertarians (the Libertarian Party was founded here); even religious nonbelievers (one-quarter of adults, according to Pew foundation research).
That varied electorate makes for more volatile election results.
Kyle Saunders, associate professor of political science at Colorado State University, notes that polls show 11 percent of voters haven’t made up their mind in the presidential race. That’s far more than the national norm. Saunders told me Colorado’s results are “more about whatever way the political winds are blowing than in other states.”
Which brings us back to the larger question of whether Democrats’ superior marketing can overcome broader discontents. A Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News poll of nearly 1,500 likely voters released Aug. 8 showed Colorado Republicans were 16 percent more enthusiastic about voting than state Democrats. It was also the first poll to show Romney ahead in the state — and, at 50 percent to 45 percent, by more than the margin of error.
It seems far-fetched to believe that Obama will get the 1.22 million votes he got in Colorado in 2008, when he beat John McCain by nearly 200,000 votes and got 260,000 more votes than John Kerry did in 2004. Anecdotal reporting suggests the youth vote that was like a tidal wave for Obama in 2008 won’t be repeated. An article in the Boulder Daily Camera noted that College Democrats at the University of Colorado have long since lost their campus office space for failing to meet minimum use requirements and said “the terrible job market” was driving young voters away from the president.
Meanwhile, some of the internal findings of Quinnipiac’s Colorado poll are striking. White men with college degrees, a group with consistently high turnout, have turned on Obama, backing Romney by 60 percent to 35 percent.
But if microtargeting can work for the Democrats anywhere, it’s in Colorado, Sainz said.
“They really know what they’re doing,” he said.
And Saunders said Democrats should take heart from the 2010 Senate race, in which tea party enthusiasm could not lift Republican Ken Buck over Democrat Michael Bennet, the appointed incumbent, who came from behind to win by 29,000 votes after a campaign in which Bennet’s team ran rings around Buck’s.
Victories such as Bennet’s are why, going forward, the vote-getting version of “Moneyball” is the new normal for political operatives, whether the media realize it or not. Campaigns and super PACs can spend tens of millions of dollars on voter research of remarkable breadth and depth, and use this research to tailor specific appeals to individual swing voters — including veterans who care more about the services they get than defense spending, libertarian lights who dislike both parties, older voters who worry more about the country’s general direction than promises to protect their benefits, and young women who worry as much as finding a career as reproductive rights.
This year, alas, could prove a depressing testament to microtargeting’s value. If it can pull an incumbent president with a terrible record on jobs, the economy and so much more past the finish line to a second term, it is an immensely powerful tool indeed.