As any good candidate should, Gentile questioned the logic of “going dark” in a good portion of the district. The answer from the team was simple— this is the right approach because the numbers say so. Sure, we could run ads in both media markets and run a conventional campaign and we still might win. But if that’s the approach we took, we wouldn’t have changed the probability of winning.
The numbers showed that regardless of how much time, money and effort was put into Parkersburg, our chances of growing our level of support above 40 percent were minimal at best. At the same time, the odds of us getting less than 36 percent there were incredibly low. Meanwhile, in Wheeling, the electorate was much more volatile so we could substantially outperform our needed target numbers, thereby changing the probability of success.
After a few conversations and discussions, Gentile approved the plan and with close monitoring throughout the last few months of the election through polling, phone IDs and other measurements such as early vote tracking, we were able to track the plan’s performance and make small adjustments as needed.
In the end, Gentile won the race with 53 percent of the vote. Even more impressive was the fact that Gentile outperformed President Obama and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) in eight of the counties while the three candidates ran equal in the remaining two.
It’s just one example of how data-driven decisions are changing the face of campaigns, and I’d argue it’s a reason why more candidates and consultants need to be drawing up their plan of attack in similar ways.
The New Landscape
It’s always hard to know exactly when dynamics change, but 2012 was clearly a new landscape. At the top of the ticket, both campaigns raised over $1 billion. If you add in the outside money, the number more than doubles.
The concentration of these funds and the attention heaped on 10 battleground states had a profound effect. If you were in a targeted state, just about every ad on TV from Labor Day until Election Day was political, households were receiving multiple phone calls a day for voter ID, persuasion and targeting, and turnout operations were being built and perfected on the precinct level for the top of the ticket.
If you were a state that received no attention, the turnout operation wasn’t being run from the top and voters were just getting news about what was happening in states like Ohio and Virginia. In either case, a nonpresidential or U.S. Senate candidate was almost assured an inability to break through. Campaigns that understood the dynamic they faced adjusted their plans and embraced a new way of looking at how to allocate the campaign’s time and resources.
From a statistical standpoint, campaigns come down to how you can increase the probability that you will receive more votes than your opponent. Too often in the political campaign environment we equate spending money to increasing the chances of winning, but the discussion should actually be about changing likely outcomes.
On smaller races, funds are always going to be lower than you want and tough decisions will need to be made when it comes to how to allocate those funds. In the past, the question tended to focus on what is the most cost-effective way to talk to the largest number of voters. The question should actually be: how do we increase the probability of success?
An additional challenge is getting past the notion that there is little incentive to take risks on campaigns. If consultants take a risk or try something different and the campaign goes down in flames, blame is most likely to be heaped on the consultant. The sad truth is that it’s easier for consultants to play it safe, cash the checks and hope for the best. The risk of doing something different could be felt on the bottom line of a firm and that’s seen as a bad business decision.
Thankfully this dynamic is changing as a new generation of operatives move up in the ranks. Safe and typical are less likely to be viewed as the best place to start, and less forward-thinking settings are viewed as completely outdated.
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm.