Virginia is a unique state, or Commonwealth as it likes to be known, in that each November following a presidential election, it elects a new Governor. Virginia shares this distinction with New Jersey, making the states the biggest shows in politics in these off years.
The 2009 gubernatorial election in Virginia was of particular interest as it followed a historic 2008 campaign and election which resulted in Barack Obama assuming the Presidency and ushered in a new period strong Democrat majorities at all levels of Washington. Held after almost a full year of Democrat reign across the Potomac, the Virginia governor’s race was seen as a likely indicator of voter sentiments after the 2008 election and as perhaps a bellwether of electoral fortunes for the parties in the 2010 Congressional midterms and gubernatorial elections.
Most notably, the 2009 Virginia race followed the first time since 1964 that the Commonwealth had voted for the Democrat presidential nominee, handing Barack Obama a 6 point victory and 13 electoral votes. Virginia was indeed one of the top storylines of the 2008 election given the magnitude of Obama’s victory in a previously reliably red state at the national level. With Obama’s victory in the state, Virginia found itself backing a Democratic president, governor & two senators as well as a new Democratic majority in the state senate. The major question of 2009 was whether Virginia had truly become a purple state trending in a blue direction or whether the historic nature of the Obama candidacy and his particular electoral strengths in a state with the demographics of Virginia was the real factor at play in 2008 and not an indication of a clear trend.
With this question unanswered and little where else to turn in assessing the national political mood a year after the presidential election, Virginia became a major focal point of national political interest in 2009.It is true that Virginia has elected a Governor from the opposite party of that which resides in the White House in each of the last eight elections leading some to claim a “presidential jinx;” however, polling in 2009 indicated that the party identity of the current president mattered little to Virginia voters in making their choice for governor. Elections are, after all, between two candidates, and in 2009, the two who faced off for the keys to the Governor’s Mansion had unique characteristics and, most interestingly, had met before.
Bob McDonnell, the Republican candidate for governor and former attorney general, and Creigh Deeds, Democrat candidate for governor and state senator, met in 2005 in the race for attorney general which McDonnell won by a razor thin margin of 360 votes out of nearly 2 million cast, the closest election in modern Virginia history. After Deeds mounted an astonishing come from behind effort in the Democratic primary over two better known and better financed opponents, with a major assist from the Washington Post, the rematch was on.
The Virginia governor’s race being so pivotal in the off year election cycle, both national parties put maximum effort into every facet of the contest. Of particular interest to the Republican Nation Committee was employing the relatively new method of voter microtargeting, statistical modeling which allows campaigns to determine which voters to target with which issue messaging in order to best motivate them to support, vote and volunteer for the candidate. The practice was pioneered in the political world in 2001 when the RNC invested significant resources in its development and testing.
Microtargeting is of particular value in Virginia where voters do not state a party preference in their registration. The only way for campaigns to determine the party affiliation of Virginia voters is through surveys or inferences from available data on voter history and issues preferences. Microtargeting allows the campaign to look much deeper into the characteristics of target voters in order to determine their individual political traits and passions.
The microtargeting process combines masses of available data on individuals with recent survey results on a sample of the voting population. All registered voters in the state are then segmented into groups along a variety of relevant political and policy spectrums. A campaign can look at multiple presentations of the data in order to decided which segments of voters to target with specific mail pieces, get out the vote efforts, volunteer outreach and every other type of targeted messaging the campaign wishes to pursue.
As the tests earlier in the decade proved, microtargeting is a far more effective method of reaching and motivating voters than blind messaging to the masses which may fall on many deaf ears depending on the issue and audience. Bob McDonnell’s campaign found this to be true as they were able to message individual voters with the facts about Bob McDonnell and his stances on the issues that would best speak to and motivate them. We won the election in Virginia, by such a large margin, because we knew, thanks to our microtargeting, which voters to target. We especially worked on those we initially found to be soft Deeds supporters, targeting them throughout the summer on the issues they most care about. This election was won in the summer months when we successfully shifted these soft Deeds supporters into our camp thereby increasing our universe of voters to a winning majority of Virginians.
Microtargeting also allowed us to anticipate and plan for the inevitable cultural attacks from the Deeds campaign against McDonnell’s social conservativism. Long before the Washington Post and Deeds went on the rampage, we had identified the voters who would be most influenced by their message, allowing us to immediately respond in a broad and, more importantly, targeted way to ensure these persuadable voters heard Bob’s side of the story. This rapid, targeted effort successfully neutralized and nullified the desperate attacks in the minds of most Virginia voters, allowing Bob to maintain a significant lead among independents despite the effort to paint him as extreme and out of the mainstream.
Our microtargeting data allowed the McDonnell Campaign, Republican National Committee, Republican Party of Virginia and Republican Governors Association to effectively implement a brilliant targeted mail, phone contact and get out the vote effort on behalf of the campaign. The RNC was responsible for and funded a majority of these targeting and turnout programs, setting records with their voter contact.This monumental success was made possible by the microtargeting conducted on voters in every corner of the state and the subsequent execution by the team of talented strategist assisting on the race.
As significant as McDonnell’s walloping of Deeds, was the historic success of Republican down-ballot candidates. These candidates certainly benefited from McDonnell’s coattails and an Obama/Deeds drag on their Democratic opponents, but also of great import to their victories was the value they derived from the microtargeting models we produced for McDonnell. Messaging on behalf of McDonnell always directly or indirectly tied down ballot Republicans to his positive vision for the state and bolstered their stature in the eyes of voters. In other words, when our microtargeting told the McDonnell campaign to target Joe Voter with a specific message thought to specifically motivate him, Joe was not only motivated to support McDonnell but to support candidates in other races sharing his vision and party affiliation.
The success of down ballot Republicans on Election Day, from the lieutenant governor and attorney general candidates, Bill Bolling and Ken Cuccinelli, who shared the executive ticket with McDonnell, to House of Delegate candidates who succeeded in expanding control of that body, is even more indicative of a shift back to the GOP among Virginia voters and predictive of Republican gains to come in the 2010 midterms across the country. Wins in these races up and down the ballot made November 3rd, 2009 a historic peak for Republicans in the Commonwealth, an even more meaningful result given that the election came only 364 days after Virginia voters handed Obama a solid victory in the commonwealth.
Not since 1997 has the GOP taken all 3 of the statewide offices. How many times did this occur prior to 1997? Zero. 2009 was only the second time in history that Republicans swept the seats. So much for Virginia turning purple or even blue in light of Obama. Even in 1997, Republicans did not control the House of Delegates. In 2009, the GOP strengthened its control with a robust majority in the legislative body.
While most of the headlines across the country reflected McDonnell’s convincing win over Creigh Deed, smart Democratic strategist and incumbents are rightly alarmed by the down-ballot Republican strength exhibited in Virginia. The Democratic members of the House of Delegates who lost their seats were not Pelosi liberals but locally known, moderate, or even conservative, Democrats who could not shield themselves from the anti-Democratic tide, even among their neighbors in the very small legislative districts. This should especially strike fear in the hearts of the 49 Democrat incumbents representing districts carried by John McCain in 2008 who must try to convince an electorate of around 500,000 that they do not represent their leadership in Washington.
As we proved again in Virginia’s 2009 statewide election, microtargeting is a tool that no campaign should go without. The precision with which it allows you to target your message for maximum efficacy is worth the effort and cost. Microtargeting pays major dividends on Election Day as well as in your fundraising and volunteer outreach throughout the campaign. As more come to recognize the enormous potential microtargeting holds, it will become an essential staple of all serious, well-executed campaigns. Rest assured microtargeting will play a pivotal role in maximizing the tide building against the Democrats in the coming year, working to turn that tide of voter sentiment into a pro-Republican wave in the 2010 midterm elections.
Technology and new methods of achieving old goals are developing fast all over the world, in every field. It is critical that politicians learn to embrace the potential of exciting, new opportunities to maximize their chances for success. Those of us who have conducted microtargeting and observed its stellar performance for a variety of campaigns are here to tell you that it is a significant key to maximizing campaign messaging as well as potential for success where it counts, in the voting booth.