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July 09, 2005

Democrats Need to Catch Up

It seems Democrats raised as much money in 2004 but the Republicans “got more bang for their buck”, verifying what many of us suspected.  I just stumbled over this old (from December) but critical article from Thomas Edsall and James Grimaldi of the Washington Post.  They examined campaign funding and spending data and interviewed campaign officials and independent groups on both sides.  They say in summary, “The Democrats simply did not spend their money as effectively as Bush.” 

Particularly in regard to television ads, the Republicans got more for their money.  Kerry, the DNC and the progressive 527’s spent $344 million on television ads, while Bush and the GOP counterparts spent about $289 million. 

In a $2.2 billion election, two relatively small expenditures by Bush and his allies stand out for their impact: the $546,000 ad buy by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the Bush campaign's $3.25 million contract with the firm TargetPoint Consulting. The first portrayed Kerry in unrelentingly negative terms, permanently damaging him, while the second produced dramatic innovations in direct mail and voter technology, enabling Bush to identify and target potential voters with pinpoint precision.

Those tactical successes were part of the overall advantage the Bush campaign maintained over Kerry in terms of planning, decision-making and strategy. The Kerry campaign, in addition to being outspent at key times, was outorganized and outthought, as Democratic professionals grudgingly admit.

"They were smart. They came into our neighborhoods. They came into Democratic areas with very specific targeted messages to take Democratic voters away from us," Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe said. "They were much more sophisticated in their message delivery."

Because they were so much better organized and they started early, the Republicans also increased voter turnout by more than the Democrats did: Bush increased his vote by 10.5 million vs. a 6.8 million increase for Kerry.

A large part of Bush's advantage derived from being an incumbent who did not face a challenger from his party. He also benefited from the experience and continuity of a campaign hierarchy, based on a corporate model, that had essentially stayed intact since Bush's 1998 reelection race for Texas governor.

More after the flip.

Critical Early Decisions

Realizing that most voters already either liked or despised Bush and were unlikely to change their votes, the Republicans made an early decision to focus on “soft” Republicans, those folks who were inclined to vote for Bush but were either unregistered or who often failed to vote.  

"We systematically allocated all the main resources of the campaign to the twin goals of motivation and persuasion. The media, the voter targeting, the mail -- all were based off that strategic decision," Republican pollster Matthew Dowd said.

Republican officials said they put $50 million into "ground war" drives to register and turn out millions of new voters in 2001 and 2002, and an additional $125 million after that.

The 527 organizations are not in sync with the campaign

What about the 527’s, the organizations like MoveOn.org, the Media Fund and ACT, whose support was supposed to provide Kerry the margin of victory?   Edsall and Grimaldi say that by the time Kerry started his general election campaign, after his primary election victory in March 2004, there were legal restrictions on cooperation between the campaign and the independent 527 organizations.  Their messages turned out to be out of harmony with the Kerry campaign. 

In March and April, the Kerry campaign would have liked positive biographical ads out but didn’t have the money to do it.  The Democratic 527’s had the money but were airing negative ads against Bush.  By the time the Kerry campaign had the money to air positive ads two months later, the Bush campaign and their allies had battered Kerry, changing the ratio of his positive to negative ratings in key battleground states. 

Research Changes Tactics

The 2002 elections were testing grounds for Republican efforts to mobilize voters. 

Under Dowd's direction, the RNC began investing in extensive voter research. One of the most striking findings, according to Republican consultants, was the ineffectiveness of traditional phone banks and direct mail that targeted voters in overwhelmingly Republican precincts. The problem: Only 15 percent of all GOP voters lived in precincts that voted Republican by 65 percent or more. Worse, an even smaller percentage of "soft" Republicans, the 2004 target constituency, lived in such precincts.

The RNC decided to cast a wider net for voters. But to work, Dowd's motivation and mobilization strategy needed expensive, high-tech micro targeting to cherry-pick prospective Republicans who lived in majority Democratic neighborhoods.

Republican firms, including TargetPoint Consultants and National Media Inc., delved into commercial databases that pinpointed consumer buying patterns and television-watching habits to unearth such information as Coors beer and bourbon drinkers skewing Republican, brandy and cognac drinkers tilting Democratic; college football TV viewers were more Republican than those who watch professional football; viewers of Fox News were overwhelmingly committed to vote for Bush; homes with telephone caller ID tended to be Republican; people interested in gambling, fashion and theater tended to be Democratic.

Surveys of people on these consumer data lists were then used to determine "anger points" (late-term abortion, trial lawyer fees, estate taxes) that coincided with the Bush agenda for as many as 32 categories of voters, each identifiable by income, magazine subscriptions, favorite television shows and other "flags." Merging this data, in turn, enabled those running direct mail, precinct walking and phone bank programs to target each voter with a tailored message.

"You used to get a tape-recorded voice of Ronald Reagan telling you how important it was to vote. That was our get-out-the-vote effort," said Alex Gage, of TargetPoint. Now, he said, calls can be targeted to specific constituencies so that, for example, a "right to life voter" could get a call warning that "if you don't come out and vote, the number of abortions next year is going to go up. "

Dowd estimated that, in part through the work of TargetPoint and other research, the Bush campaign and the RNC were able to "quadruple the number" of Republican voters who could be targeted through direct mail, phone banks and knocking on doors.

Democrats had access to similar data files. But the Bush campaign and the RNC were able to make far better use of the data because they had the time and money to conduct repeated field tests in the 2002 and 2003 elections, to finance advanced research on meshing databases with polling information, and to clean up and revise databases that almost invariably contained errors and omissions.

The Swift-Boat Veterans Ads

The first Swift Boat Veterans ads aired on just four cable channels at a cost of $546,000 but received free coverage that was priceless.  The Swift Boat Veterans eventually spent $28 million raising questions about Kerry’s service in the Vietnam War.  During this time the Kerry campaign barely countered the ads because they were trying to conserve their money for later in the campaign.  Harold Ickes of the Media Fund said, “he regretted not responding to the Swift Boat Veterans’ attacks, but at the time he thought they seemed ‘a matter so personal to Senator Kerry, so much within his knowledge.  Who knew what the facts were?”

How the Money was Spent: A Focus on Non-traditional Media

The Bush campaign's early strategy decisions shaped GOP spending. Under the guidance of Rove, Dowd and Mehlman, the Bush campaign had financed early research into ways to communicate to center-right voters through nontraditional media.

The Bush campaign concluded that many of their voters did not trust the networks and the establishment press, and therefore did not trust messages transmitted through them.

Mehlman said that talk radio and cable television "are more credible" to potential Bush voters. Ultimately the Bush campaign invested an unprecedented $20 million in narrowly targeted advertising on cable and in radio, with a heavy emphasis on religious, talk and country and western stations, and such specialty outlets as golf and health club channels.

"They did a lot of stuff really well. They were ahead of us," said one of the Democrats' get-out-the-vote managers who did not want to be identified. "They had a strategy set by the beginning that they were going to live and die by. And we didn't."

In an election with a 2.6 percent margin of victory, the Bush campaign was run to ensure that every dollar went to fulfill core strategies, that resources were allocated to capitalize on Bush's strengths and on Kerry's vulnerabilities, and that the money necessary to finance research, technological advance, television and the ground war was available when needed.

Ouch.  Time to catch up. 

Posted by Lynn Allen on July 9, 2005 at 02:12 PM in Strategery | Permalink

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