In Michigan, nominees for a number of statewide offices are determined at state party conventions, which makes screening and monitoring convention delegates a crucial task for aspiring candidates. This was a key concern for the state’s Republican Attorney General-elect Bill Schuette and his campaign team—by using a novel approach to delegate tracking through information technology, they were able to overcome their name recognition deficit.
A former state senator, Schuette served as an elected judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals from 2002 to 2009. Despite his extensive resume, Schuette faced an uphill battle for the nomination against a better-known and better-funded opponent, former state Senate Majority Leader Michael Bishop.
Although the nomination is decided by convention delegates, the opinion of primary voters is often highly influential. A mid-July Glengariff Group poll showed that while nearly two thirds of Republican primary voters had no opinion on the matter, Bishop had a narrow edge among those who did have an opinion; Schuette was gaining some traction, but he still had ground to make up.
In addition, Schuette was already facing opposition from the state Democratic Party. In late May, long before the Republican Party’s August convention, the Michigan Democratic Party released a Web ad linking a vote Schuette had cast in favor of drilling for gas in the Great Lakes to the Gulf oil spill. The ad, which went up in May, was a clear sign that the Democrats preferred to run against Bishop in the fall.
Schuette responded within days with his own forceful Web ad. “You always have to respond,” he says. “If a lie is told, you have to respond immediately. You cannot sit back and pretend it didn’t happen. Call it a lie and respond with equal or greater fire power.”
Still, appealing to convention delegates poses completely different challenges than appealing to the electorate. Lori Wortz, a general consultant with WWP Strategies who worked with the Schuette campaign, described the challenge of going into a convention relatively blind and not being able to influence the delegates like you can voters in a public election. “You can often get to a convention and be blindsided by an issue or a false attack or rumor,” she says.
To deal with this situation, the campaign gathered e-mail addresses for all the state’s precinct delegates, who would elect the convention delegates. By searching for the names of candidates and the e-mail addresses of convention delegates, Schuette’s team could monitor conversations about the race on a variety of websites and online forums. When a conversation relating to the attorney general race arose, members of the team could respond instantly to delegates’ questions or concerns on an individual level. They also communicated directly via phone with individual delegates.
“We did phone touches where [delegates] could indicate by dial pad [their preference in candidates],” says Wortz. “We could track undecideds and have field folks make calls directly. We put undecideds at a higher priority for outreach.”
In a closed-door process such as a convention, misinformation can travel fast and can be difficult to contain. However, Wortz describes a number of success stories. “We could pull up information and shut [rumors] down quickly,” says Wortz. “One person deleted their post after we corrected their misinformation on a vote [that Schuette made in the state Senate].”
At the convention, Schuette won his party’s nomination by a delegate vote of 1072 to 971. Despite having the political momentum in Michigan this year, Schuette stresses that statewide general elections in the Upper Midwest are never easily won by Republicans. “This is not Oklahoma,” Schuette says. “Even with the wind at our backs, it is a competitive race.” On Election Day, however, Schuette defeated his Democratic opponent, Genesee County Prosecutor David Leyton, 52 to 43 percent.
Noah Rothman is the online editor for C&E. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org