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Getting Out The Vote: The Last-Minute Political Push


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden, in for Guy Raz.

NPR is keeping an eye on the progress of Hurricane Sandy as it heads up the East Coast. We'll update you on that in a moment. The weather is now officially dominating the headlines but not entirely. We do have an election on November 6th.

The race is now a storm-chased sprint. Governor Romney has canceled campaign events in Virginia and moved on to Ohio. The president has kept one eye on Hurricane Sandy and the other on the battleground states.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Ohio, I believe in you.


MITT ROMNEY: So many friends and ears today. Thank you for being here.

LYDEN: Ohio and Iowa, just two of the key battleground states the candidates hit last week. It's a game of inches now. Both sides are trying to gain advantage by turning out the vote, combining new data mining technology with old-fashioned phone calls and door knocks. Our cover story today: getting the most out of getting out the vote.


LYDEN: First, let's turn to our national political correspondent Mara Liasson. I asked her what her sense is of where things stand.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Romney has a small edge in the national polls and in the battleground states, which is the path to the 270 Electoral College votes that each candidates needs. The president is hanging on to a very small edge. So you'd have to say whatever momentum we've seen recently in the race is to Romney, but the president still has some structural advantages that he's hanging onto.

LYDEN: Mara, this is not where President Obama expected to be. It's been very difficult for the president since the debate of October 3rd. Do you think that that is underestimated in terms of reckoning here?

LIASSON: I think it's impossible to overestimate the effect that the Denver debate had on this race. The Obama campaign said all along it expected it to be very, very close, and it is. However, the whole dynamic of the race changed after Denver, and I don't think anybody can overestimate the good that Romney did for himself. All of a sudden, his favorables are better, and he's leading with independents.

He has a huge advantage with whites. The president is now down in the mid-30s with white voters. It's hard for a Democrat to win with those kind of numbers. The Romney campaign's theory all along was if they could come into the fall essentially tied with the president and then make a good showing in the debates that he could win.

They always planned to spend a tremendous amount of money on the air at the end. That was their theory. The Obama campaign, understanding that they were defending a weak incumbent in a terrible economy, has worked very hard early on to lay down a ground game, to do tremendous investment in voter targeting and ID and spend a lot of money on advertising early to define Romney. So they've had two very different approaches, and we're going to find out pretty soon who had the better theory.

LYDEN: Mara, with the race this close, is it possible one candidate wins the popular vote and the other the Electoral College?

LIASSON: Yes. It's absolutely possible. If the election were held right at this moment, the president would win the Electoral College, but Romney would eke out a popular vote margin. Now, what does that mean? The Constitution says the Electoral College is what determines our president, but it would raise questions of legitimacy just like it did after George W. Bush got elected after losing the popular vote.

LYDEN: You know, I just want to ask you one question about this storm. I mean, is it possible that that has some kind of effect on the election or the - certainly on the campaign?

LIASSON: Oh, it clearly will disrupt some early voting. It's wreaked havoc on the candidates' schedules. But it's hard to say which candidate might have an advantage because of the storm.

LYDEN: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks a lot for being with us.

LIASSON: Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: The campaigns are working feverishly to get out the vote in the precious few remaining days. They're microtargeting their message, contacting those who can still be influenced. So how to find them? By following and studying an invisible trail of information we all leave behind. To find out more, I spoke with journalist Sasha Issenberg who's been spending a lot of time figuring out how microtargeting works.

SASHA ISSENBERG: Microtargeting is the process by which campaigns gather large amounts of information on individual voters - up to a thousand data points now - and use these complex statistical models - algorithms - to sort of troll through all that data about you and come up with an individual level prediction of your likelihood of voting or your likelihood of supporting a particular candidate.

LYDEN: So it sure takes the guesswork out of it for the old precinct captain. Now, where do they get these thousand data points?

ISSENBERG: So the first stuff is what's on your voter registration record. That has your name, your address, your age, your gender and then the history of elections in which you voted. The big breakthrough after 2000 was that campaigns realized that the commercial world had created these huge data warehouses that had hundreds of pieces of information about people from what they've put down on warranty forms, their magazine subscriptions. Companies would sell them lists of their customers or passengers. Information from local records like hunting permits or if you applied to build a pool in your backyard. And you start to add all that up and now we're at hundreds, sometimes thousands, of individual pieces of data on a voter.

What campaigns now can do is come up with sort of individualized approaches so they could separate out the people that they want to persuade with a message on jobs and ones that they want to persuade with a message on abortion.

LYDEN: And how do they know that because they got information about, I don't know, put in a new swimming pool, I might want to be persuaded by a message on jobs or abortion?

ISSENBERG: So they have this large pool of information about every voter in the country. And then they go out and they do these large-scale polls and they're able to sort of use the algorithms to find these sort of previously imperceptible relationships that an individual's attribute has on predicting how they'll vote.

LYDEN: Which campaign do you think is better able to take advantage of it?

ISSENBERG: Everything we know is that the left, and especially the Obama campaign, is significantly ahead of the right now on not just collecting data, but analyzing it and starting to make meaningful assumptions about voter behavior.

LYDEN: Why are they ahead?

ISSENBERG: In the last few years, the biggest insights that have come into politics have come from the social sciences, from academia through running these large-scale field experiments that actually measure the real effect of the interactions that campaigns have with individual voters. And there, there's just much more of, frankly, a comfort among the academics who are studying political science, behavioral psychology, economics, who want to work with groups in campaigns on the left to sort of refine their pools for winning votes.

LYDEN: Campaigns aren't just gathering this information. They're also using it to get the vote out. Would you explain how that happens?

ISSENBERG: The first decision a campaign makes is who not to talk to. So they want to push out people who are definitely going to vote for them or never going to vote for them or are very unlikely to vote at all. And then the voters who are left, they want to separate into one of two categories. You want to look for people who are very likely to vote but haven't necessarily made up their minds.

And then the other group of people you care about are people who like your candidate, identify with your party, are sort of broadly part of your coalition but are not regular voters. And so the first group of people you want to persuade, the second group of people you want to mobilize. And that's what this sort of season in the campaign that we're very much into now. This is what get out the vote, GOTV, is about.

LYDEN: Old-fashioned boots on the ground still matter as well, don't they?

ISSENBERG: Yeah. And the most amazing thing is, I think, everybody wants to talk about technology in campaigns as though the most cutting-edge stuff is always what's on a screen in front of you. And it turns out that all of the most sophisticated data clocks and analysis based on really significant advances in technology has pointed campaigns towards more of an investment in what looks like really old-fashioned street-level campaigning.

And so we're seeing now in our politics more than ever an interest in building volunteer networks and using them for person-to-person contact. We've seen through these experiments that having somebody knock on a door is more likely to get the person behind it to turn out than calling them.

And that having a volunteer call somebody is more likely to get them to turn out than having a paid call center call them. And now with all this data and microtargeting, the campaigns can actually direct that interaction with a lot more efficiency than they were able to.

LYDEN: Sasha Issenberg, journalist and author of the new book "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns." Thank you very much.

ISSENBERG: Thanks for having me, Jacki.

LYDEN: The Obama campaign has set up about 800 field offices across the country. The Romney campaign, less than half that number. Yet enthusiasm is like jet fuel. And while they may have fewer offices, the Romney campaign in Virginia says they've made almost five million contacts in a state of eight million people. That's including doors knocked and calls made. A lot of that is happening in places like this one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: ...if we could count on some support for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.

LYDEN: Here at the Romney campaign Virginia headquarters in Arlington, we found this enthusiast at the phone bank.

DONNA PASTORE: Hi. My name is Donna, and I'm calling from the Republican Party of Virginia wondering if Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan can count on your support in the November election?

LYDEN: Donna Pastore is a 64-year-old retired teacher who's been volunteering with the campaign for the past couple of months. She has the message down.

PASTORE: And I want to encourage you to speak to your neighbors and your friends who might be on the fence and encourage them to vote similarly to you.

LYDEN: The Virginia residents on the other end of the line wouldn't know it, but Donna Pastore can't see.

PASTORE: I'm actually totally blind.

LYDEN: So Donna and the campaign made some adjustments to help her.

PASTORE: They emailed me the script and I put it into Braille and then they showed me how to work the buttons. So while I can't read the screen, I can enter people's responses. Hi. Could I speak to Sheila, please?

LYDEN: Everyone knows that Ohio, with its 18 electoral votes, is ground zero. The Obama campaign has three times as many field offices there as the Romney camp, 131, including this one in Cincinnati. On this night, volunteers have turned out for a special women's phone bank, women phoning women. They're hoping to regain Obama's once comfortable lead amongst women voters, which some polls show has narrowed.

NANCY FINKELMEIER: Hello. My name is Nancy. I'm a volunteer with President Obama's campaign here in East Walnut field. How are you doing this evening?

LYDEN: Nancy Finkelmeier(ph), a registered nurse, has been volunteering with the campaign since February.

FINKELMEIER: I'm just calling to see if you're going to be supporting the president. Do you like him? Oh, terrific. Oh, we're so happy to have your support.

LYDEN: Finkelmeier says she's convinced herr efforts are counting, and she won't let up before Election Day.

FINKELMEIER: I think people have seen enough of the TV ads, do you think maybe? And there's something about looking eye to eye when we canvass. And when you knock on that neighbor's door and you look them in the eyeball and say, yeah, I understand where you're coming from, look, things aren't perfect today. You know, we can all admit that, but let's continue to go forward in the direction we are. And those grassroots efforts is what this campaign is all about.

LYDEN: And since both campaigns are counting on the grassroots effort, who's doing a better job? Well, an ABC News/Washington Post poll finds that 22 percent of likely voters have already been personally contacted by Obama's campaign, 23 percent by the Romney side. As with so many things in this closely divided race, even the outreach effort appears to be tied. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.