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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Issenberg: Behind the Cruz Win in Iowa

Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, explains “How Ted Cruz Engineered His Iowa Triumph” at Bloomberg.com. Issenberg discusses how Chris Wilson, the Cruz campaign pollster and director of analytics, targeted the pivotal group needed to win, following the Palin fiasco and Gov. Terry Branstad’s dismissal of Cruz as a worthy candidate:

Wilson swiftly recalibrated the challenge as a matter of numbers. On his phone, he summoned a report that counted 9,131 individual Iowans whom Wilson’s statistical models had identified as choosing between the two leading candidates. Those people existed at the overlap of likely caucus-goers who were seen as considering both Cruz and Trump; anyone who also ranked Marco Rubio highly was pushed out of the group. “These aren’t people you want to contrast with Trump and push to Rubio,” explained Wilson. (There were, separately, 6,309 voters then choosing between Cruz and Rubio but not Trump.) Those who remained were a remarkably homogeneous group: 91 percent male, two-thirds of them likely to self-associate as evangelical Christians.
For the closing days of the Iowa campaign, Cruz’s campaign had defined such pools for each of his major opponents as part of what was known internally as the Oorlog Project, named by a Cruz data scientist who searched online for “war” translated into different languages and thought the Afrikaner word looked coolest. It was just the latest way that Cruz’s analytics department had tried to slice the Iowa caucus electorate in search of an advantage for its candidate. They had divided voters by faction, self-identified ideology, religious belief, personality type–creating 150 different clusters of Iowa caucus-goers–down to sixty Iowa Republicans its statistical models showed as likely to share Cruz’s desire to end a state ban on fireworks sales.
Unlike most of his opponents, Cruz has put a voter-contact specialist in charge of his operation, and it shows in nearly every aspect of the campaign he has run thus far and intends to sustain through a long primary season. Cruz, it should be noted, had no public position on Iowa’s fireworks law until his analysts identified sixty votes that could potentially be swayed because of it.

Wilson, notes Issenberg, has “the most expansive brief of any pollster in either party’s 2016 field: his surveys not only guide Cruz’s strategy and define his message, but drive targeting decisions both online and off, including digital fundraising appeals.”
All targeting technology wizardry aside, Cruz, had a lot of assets going for him as the shiny new kid on the block, including a clear strategic sense about how to win the tea party’s ultra-right conservative evangelicals. More than any other GOP candidate, he really is one of them, and the authenticity surely shows. No doubt, he will move toward the center, if nominated. But it’s hard to see how he can shake some of his right-wing bonafides enough to make a credible pitch to political moderates. For the Democratic nominee, he may be more beatable than Trump.
The Cruz campaign developed a sophisticated method for shaping messaging to different sub-groups. Issenberg notes that the campaign “brainstorming sessions generated a master list of 77 local issues for Iowans,” with micro targeting exercises including Facebook trial balloons. The campaign also deployed Cambridge Analytica, which set out “to profile every American voter along each of the five dominant personality factors: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.” Further, adds issenberg,

Yet the 32 different personality types into which Cambridge Analytica segregated voters would be unmanageable if layered onto other divisions in the electorate. Wilson pushed the company to simplify its framework by pushing voters into just five clusters, including Timid Traditionalist, Relaxed Leader, and Temperamental. At the same time, he deployed the two full-time analysts that Cambridge had embedded in Cruz’s headquarters to work on building statistical models more directly relevant to political attributes…
…More than 300,000 Iowans were potential targets, having participated previously in at least one Republican primary, though Wilson spent 2015 expecting fewer than half that number to actually attend the caucus in February. Based on that turnout, Wilson had set a vote goal of 39,585, a number he expected to reach by both persuading likely caucus-goers and mobilizing new ones predicted to support Cruz. When he took those different behavioral buckets, split them by issue preference, and then again by personality groups, Wilson ended up with more than 150 segments in Iowa alone.

It’s hard to imagine Trump utilizing such micro targeting and message development, given his shoot-from-the-lip approach. In this sense the Iowa GOP Caucuses were, for the GOP, a telling contest between charisma and hard-headed political science, and charisma was decisively out-played. It paid off at crunch time, as issenbereg explains:

A few hours before the caucuses began, Wilson sat in the hotel lobby and looked at his final projections and all the different ways Cruz could exceed his vote goal of 35,178. As of that day, 39,541 Iowans had directly confirmed their intention to caucus for Cruz, with nearly 4,000 of them doing so over the web site. At the same time, the campaign had 29,830 turnout targets, infrequent voters whom statistical models predicted were likely to support Cruz if they did end up choosing to caucus. It was a slice of that group deemed the least likely to turn out–with less than one-in-four odds of doing so–who received a controversial get-out-the-vote mailer that essentially shamed voters into turning out in the closing weekend of the race. Rubio, Trump, and Iowa’s secretary of state slammed the move as “not in keeping in the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses.”
About three thousand of Cruz’s turnout targets were selected to receive the mail, an aggressive version of a common technique refined through dozens, possibly hundreds, of different social-science experiments confirming that the “social pressure” of shaming non-voters can in fact serve to motivate them. The “Voting Violation” design evoked an official government document, and the inclusion of neighbors’ supposed voting records had been shown to be far more potent than merely letting voters know their own records were public. Cruz’s campaign had to send the mail out under its own name–as opposed to that of a super-PAC or other outside group, as is preferred with such tactics liable to incite blowback–because it was the one with the most current list of the people Cruz needed to mobilize. (Some other campaigns, notably John Kasich’s, have effectively outsourced all their highly targeted voter contact to allied super-PACs.)

In his concluding paragraph Issenberg adds “Cruz advisers anticipated the cynical media response, but accepted the risk.” If Democratic micro targeting provided an edge in 2008 and 2012, the safe assumption is that it will not be the case in 2016. The respected Des Moines register poll was right that the Democratic Caucuses result would be close, but they were significantly off about the GOP tally, which is a credit to the Cruz campaign.
Whether Cruz wins or loses his party’s nomination, it’s likely that his targeting and message teams will be on board with the GOP presidential nominee. Dems need to make sure their team is at least as sharp.

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