Campaigns and elections

Fresh Data on Obama Voter Mobilization

John Sides Nov 9 '12

This is a guest post from political scientists Ryan Enos and Eitan Hersh.


The voter mobilization efforts of the Obama campaign – and the micro-targeting databases behind them – are getting a lot of attention in post-election analysis. Like hundreds of other Democratic campaigns, the Presidential campaign implemented its voter contacting strategy with the help of a company, NGP-VAN. NGP-VAN, or as campaign field operatives refer to it – “the VAN” – is a web interface that connects campaign workers to databases of voters. Each campaign provides the VAN with its voter database, and the VAN offers tools that allow staff and volunteers to log on and interact with the data. Campaign workers look up voters and make lists of targets in the VAN when they want to canvass, run phone banks, and send mail and email.

It took us a year to get them all to agree, but we are now excited to reveal initial evidence from the Ground Campaign Project (GCP) – a research endeavor done in conjunction with Obama for America, NGP-VAN, and twenty-five state Democratic parties. The project offers the most comprehensive view to date of strategic mobilization, from behind the scenes of hundreds of political campaigns.

With the help of our partners, we embedded a survey instrument into the NGP-VAN website for all users associated with the Obama campaign across the country as well as for users associated with hundreds of Senate, House, and local races in twenty-five states. From June 11 to November 6, 2012, when workers looked up voters in their campaign database, they were randomly invited to participate in our study. Interviewing campaign activists every day for nearly six months, we have built a database consisting of approximately 4,000 respondents. We will be using this dataset to answer questions about campaign strategy, political activists, and party politics.

Here, we display a few graphs that might be of immediate interest in post-election analysis.

Where was Obama’s Ground Campaign?

Every day, for the last 149 days of the general election campaign, we interviewed staffers, interns, and volunteers working for the Obama campaign. When campaign workers looked up voter contact information in from their database, one in 100 workers was invited to take a short questionnaire.

The map on the top shows the frequency of interviews we conducted by state. The number of interviews is a useful measure of how many total field workers were engaged in each state. Darker colors suggest that OFA was dedicating more of its ground campaign to these places. Notice that there was significant campaign activity in heavily Democratic states, like California. In the map on the bottom, we adjust the numbers based on how many electoral votes are up for grabs in each state. This map reflects the Obama campaign’s attention to a state, given the size of the Electoral College prize (colors indicate the ratio of the proportion of campaign activity in the state to the proportion of the total Electoral College votes in the state). When this adjustment is made, the activity in states like California largely disappears.

Our maps will generally conform to other measures of Obama’s state-by-state strategy, such as measures of money, TV ad buys, campaign offices, and candidate visits. However, the measure here is unique in the sense that it is based on internal campaign data.  This unique data source may prove to be especially revealing because the Obama campaign has relied so heavily on targeted voter mobilization efforts.  These data will allow us to directly observe the mobilization, whereas data on television advertisements, for example, would not.

One lesson we draw from the map is that the campaign took more of an offensive strategy than a defensive one. Even through the end of the campaign season, the campaign was very active in Florida and North Carolina, and never engaged many field staff in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Below you can see an animation of the campaign’s increasing intensity and focus over the last six months.

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Can Campaign Workers Predict Electoral Closeness?

We asked campaign workers to estimate how much Obama would win or lose by in the state in which they were working. Below, we see the result for the state of Florida, where we interviewed over 400 workers in the last six months of the campaign. Plotted along with the campaign workers’ predictions is the RealClearPolitics polling average, aggregated by week. The Obama campaign workers overshot the polls by about 8 points in their estimates. For this reason, we include a line in which we shift the poll trend vertically so that we can compare the relative changes across time. We learn both that the campaign workers were always more confident than the polls suggested, and that the campaign workers seemed to sense similar changes in their prospects as indicated by the polls.  This sort of analysis will be useful in understanding how the campaigns’ internal assessments of closeness affect their strategy.