Charles Dharapak, AP
Reviewing Iowa and New Hampshire, remember that election results are reported in percentages, so vote totals always add up to 100 percent. This creates the false impression that one candidate's gain always comes from another candidate's loss.
However, a large percentage of potential voters fail to participate, so a candidate may not have moved up by changing minds; instead, he might have increased his total by getting passive supporters off the bench and onto the field. Every campaign needs a good "ground game" to identify and stimulate such potential voters.
In Iowa, Rick Santorum ran the most basic ground game of all — personally visiting every county and speaking to thousands of voters face to face. It took him to 25 percent and a tie with Mitt Romney, but his inability to duplicate that performance in other states saw him slip to 9 percent in New Hampshire, where Jon Huntsman's face-to-face effort topped out at 17 percent. Neither one could match Romney's ground game, which poured significant resources — time as well as money — into a program known as micro-targeting.
Micro-targeting uses computer analysis to sift through multiple informational sources, right down to micro level. It produces a mountain of data about individual habits and circumstances that can be used to determine probable voting patterns. Backed by thousands of phone calls to individual voters, Team Romney targeted those who would be most disposed to back a Romney candidacy, determined which messages resonated the best with them and tailored both their media buys and Romney's schedule accordingly.
On election day in New Hampshire, the Romney campaign knew, household by household, which voters were leaning toward him and which were not. They knew whom to call to urge them to vote and whom to ignore in the hope that they would not.
Developed as a marketing tool, the application of micro-targeting to politics is relatively recent. The first campaign consultant to use it extensively was Karl Rove, particularly in George W. Bush's re-election in 2004. Those efforts were surpassed by Team Obama in 2008, and the level of sophistication and accuracy has increased dramatically since then. In 2008, the computers could come up with a dozen facts about a single voter; now that number is close to 300. In 2008, Romney had 5,000 hard-core supporters in New Hampshire; this year he had more than 25,000 upon whom he could rely, not only to vote Romney themselves, but also influence friends, relatives and co-workers to do the same.
That, as much as anything, is why virtually every knowledgeable campaign professional now believes that Romney's drive to the nomination is unstoppable. None of his competitors has the infrastructure that he has in the states that lie ahead. Media hype and volunteer enthusiasm can change things in a small state, but they are far less effective in a large one where face-to-face campaigning is impossible and TV dominates, all the more so if a candidate has a substantial ground game to back it up. Such a game takes time to build and money to finance. Romney started early and has plenty of cash.
As has President Obama. His campaign owned this space in 2008 and is not willing to relinquish that lead. Undetracted by a nomination fight, Obama is now compiling a vast store of information about the voters who will decide his fate and preparing effective ways to target and stimulate participation by those who can help him the most.
November's election will be the most technologically driven one in our history. A candidate who relies on oratory alone would lose it.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. Senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
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