Got ground game? How data drove Vermont’s 2012 elections

Beth Pearce speaks at the Vermont Democratic Party election night party. Photo by Andrew Stein

Two key elements of the Democrats’ state and national political strategy caught Republicans off guard this election: the Dems’ micro targeting of voters and an aggressive “ground game.”

But those tactics would have been practically useless in Vermont without the robust voter data the Democrats now have access to thanks to the largesse of the national party.

Pundits and political strategists use the buzz-term “ground game” to describe hands-on methods, like going door-to-door and making personal phone calls, for appealing to individual voters and driving their support to the polls — as opposed to the “air game” of blanket broadcast advertisements. Micro targeting is the practice of identifying voter niches based on population attributes and then marketing campaign messages that resonate with those groups.

State party leaders on both sides of the fence say these two tactics were crucial to the Dems sweeping four of five statewide office races and adding an additional two seats to their already commanding stronghold in the House. Members of the Vermont GOP recognize the data gap and are desperate to get up to speed.

“The gulf between Democrats and Republicans is huge, and it will remain huge because the Democrats understand the new mechanics of political campaigns and the Republicans don’t,” said Kevin Ellis, a Democrat who is a principal with the communications and lobbying firm KSE Partners.

“The mechanics are the segmenting of the population, the micro-targeting of different segments of the population, and knowing how they’ll behave and vote so you can adjust and target your message to one segment over here and another over there,” he added. “That starts with research, and that research was created and invested in by the Obama people, and now it’s trickling down to all 50 states.”

The massive pools of voter data that drove the Dems’ presidential campaign strategy also shaped Vermont Democratic campaigns.

“Data played a huge part in our campaign strategy,” said Julia Barnes, the 29-year-old executive director of the Vermont Democratic Party.

“If you don’t have good data, and you don’t know whom you’re talking to, you can waste a lot of time and a lot of money,” Barnes said.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, the sole Republican victor in the Election 2012 statewide races, speaks to supporters. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

That’s what happened to the Vermont Republicans this election, said Darcie Johnston, who managed Republican Randy Brock’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign. While the Dems knew who their potential voter bases were and how to target them, the Republicans didn’t.

The problem, she said, wasn’t with the candidates, who she said were strong this year, it was the lack of information readily available to effectively campaign for those candidates.

“We need a voter file that is well developed and computer driven and ID’d using every demographic we can find and overlaid with every piece of social media information that can be mined,” said Johnston on Friday. “And it needs to start tomorrow.”

The Dems’ data

Officials from both parties agree that staffing levels played a role in the outcome of this election. Leading up to Election Day, the Vermont Dems had 17 full-time staffers, compared to the Grand Old Party’s single employee.

The Democrats said one behind-the-scenes staffer made a world of difference — a guy by the name of John Faas.

While an in-kind donation of voter files from the Democratic National Committee helped the local campaigns, Barnes maintained that the most powerful data the Vermont party used was hand-compiled by Faas.

Over the last five months, Faas has created a database that shows Vermonters’ voting history, contact information, any previous contact with the party, the districts voters live in and party-specific modeling information. The Vermont Democratic Party has paid Faas about $9,516 so far this year.

“We have had a really talented and smart data director on staff since June, and he has spent an exorbitant amount of time working with our voter files to make sure the information we have is accurate with all the town clerks in Vermont,” Barnes said.

Republican State Sen. Randy Brock gives his concession speech at the Capital Plaza Hotel. Photo by Nat Rudarakanchana

In 2007, Faas graduated from Ohio’s Miami University with a master’s degree in political science. While studying there, he said, he took a quantitative approach to understanding policy. After graduation he worked as a field organizer for New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s 2008 Democratic presidential campaign and then on New Mexico Democrat Sen. Thomas Udall’s successful campaign in 2008. He said that while working on a California campaign, he realized he most enjoyed figuring out how to best target Democratic voters and get them to the polls.

He moved back to New Mexico and was learning several new computer-coding languages earlier this year when the Vermont Democratic Party brought him on board. Since Faas joined the team in June, his colleagues at the Democratic Party say he has helped reshape the Democrats’ fieldwork.

“His work as the data director has been crucial to our results this year,” said 23-year-old Ariel Wengroff, Vermont Democratic Party spokeswoman.

The Vermont Dems use two data models from the national committee: one to predict the likelihood of a person voting on Election Day, and the other to predict how likely he or she is to vote for a Democrat. Since many Vermonters don’t register with a party, Dem officials said this latter model, called the “Likely Party Model,” is particularly helpful.

One of the most powerful tools the Democrats use is a program they call “Ballot Chase.” When the party discovers that someone has requested an early ballot, the party attempts to contact them the next day to persuade them to vote for their candidates.

The Vermont Dems also keep a running tally of all previous indications that a voter has given about candidate preferences. This biennial campaign cycle alone, the party collected 50,000 surveys to enhance their Likely Party Model.

Faas and company collected data concerning previous voting history from the Vermont Secretary of State’s Office and town clerks. The Vermont Dems also keep a database of past volunteers to keep track of what tasks they are willing to do and what times might be most convenient for them, so that they can organize quickly.

The Dems keep extremely close tabs on early/absentee ballots. One of the most powerful tools staff members use is a program they call “Ballot Chase.” When the party discovers that someone has requested an early ballot, the party attempts to contact them the next day to persuade them to vote for their candidates. Once a voter returns an early ballot, the Dems record this information so they don’t waste time contacting them again.

As the Dems chased such ballots this year, they made more than 400,000 calls, and 50,000 of the voters contacted indicated which candidates they would support. The party tracked the early ballot requests and voting history of more than 53,000 voters.

Party officials said that while their data is not complete, the level of detail in these databases is unprecedented in Vermont.

Gov. Peter Shumlin talks with Gene Bergman, Progressive candidate for the Vermont House, at a polling place in Burlington on Election Day. VTD Photo/Andrew Stein

In a statement, representatives from the Vermont Democratic Party wrote, “Two main activities of a field campaign are persuading voters and turning out voters. By effectively using this data, you can ensure that the time volunteers spend phone banking and canvassing is actually reaching who it needs to.”

This way, the party doesn’t waste time trying to persuade voters who are already voting for Democrats.

“Time is a finite resource in campaigns, and strong targeting allows to you to make sure that every second of calls is being put somewhere they are useful and helping accomplish the party’s goals,” the statement says.

When Jack Lindley, chair of the Vermont Republican Party and its only full-time staffer, was asked about the role data played in Republican campaigns, he didn’t have much to say.

“What role did data play? Certainly the Democrats used better data than I had,” Lindley said. “Obviously our data did not match their good quality data. They were able to dump 10,000 voters in the month of October, and that was no easy feat. They used data to get that done.”

Micro-targeting messages and candidates

Thetford native Nick Charyk oversaw the Dems’ House campaigns. The party brought in the 26-year-old Harvard graduate at the beginning of 2011, after he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Matt Dunne’s unsuccessful run at the governor’s office and then managed the unsuccessful state Senate campaign of Donnie Osman.

Charyk said he doesn’t technically work for the party, although he’s deeply involved with their operations. He runs three political action committees, or PACs: the Democratic House Leadership PAC, the Democratic House Campaign and the Vermont House Solidarity PAC.

Over the past two years, he raised roughly $200,000. About two-thirds of that went to paying his salary and that of contractors, he said.

Wendy Wilton speaks to VTDigger on Election Day outside a New North End polling station, accompanied by her daughter and faithful campaigner Georgie, a UVM student. VTD Photo/Nat Rudarakanchana

His goal from the beginning was to figure out “what makes a town tick.”

“We’d try to figure out what issues resonated in a town, like Rutland, and figured out a candidate that would fit well with those issues. Then, in Burlington, we found a very different candidate to talk about those issues,” he said. “To be effective, you’ve got to get it right, and you’ve got to take the time to figure out how a community really works.”

Charyk said the Republicans didn’t take steps to figure out what matters to people.

“I’m not terribly worried about them until they get their message in touch with what resonates with people,” he said.

The House campaigns used mass mailers toward the end of the campaigns to respond to Vermonters First ads the party considered misleading, Charyk said.

As time ticked down to the election, he said, John Faas’ data helped his campaigns pick up crucial voters.

“What we were able to do was pretty intricate,” Charyk said. “We had pretty sophisticated projections of who was going to turn out. So, when I picked a district to focus on, we looked at who was going to turn out and who was persuadable, and that was usually about 60 percent of the population. We made sure they got the attention and the message we were trying to push. That was very different than what Vermonters First did, which was push a single message statewide.”

In the final four days of the campaign, Jake Perkinson, chair of the Vermont Democratic Party, said the Dems made 143,000 get-out-the-vote calls, and party volunteers put in a total of 3,082 hours on behalf of the Democratic campaigns.

Perkinson said this on-the-ground approach to campaigning was more effective than broadcast advertising, which is where Vermonters First put a big chunk of its change. The Vermont Democratic Party spent nearly $1 million over the last two years on its sophisticated get-out-the-vote campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings. In the last few months, Lenore Broughton, the heiress who funded the conservative super PAC Vermonters First, spent more than $800,000 on mailings, robotic calls and air time on TV and radio to persuade voters to support Republican candidates.

The Republicans say they’ve got ground game, too. Lindley said the party didn’t micro-target as much as the Dems, but when they used a semblance of the technique it was effective.

“There’s nothing outstanding that we did to create an overall win in the state,” he said. “There are pockets where we did extremely well. There was a big effort in Rutland County, and it worked well.”

In Rutland city, the Republicans grabbed two House seats that were previously occupied by Democrats.

House Minority Leader Don Turner, R-Milton, said the House candidates didn’t have the support Democratic candidates did.

“I’d say 95 percent of our candidates went door-to-door. I think it takes not only that, though,” Turner said. “You can knock on doors all day long, but you need follow-up and the support of the bigger entity.”

The biggest problem for Republicans in the House races, said Turner, was recruiting. The GOP had 74 candidates running against 121 candidates with a “D” next to their names.

“We need to start recruiting candidates today,” Turner said on Friday. “That means going into the communities and seeing the people active in the communities and recruiting younger people and people who have connections to the constituency.”

Lindley says the issue is getting Republican voters to the polls. There are as many voters likely to cast ballots for Republicans as Democrats in Vermont, he said, and the party failed to get many of those voters to the polls.

“There’s no point in us working on candidates in districts where there’s not a chance of us being successful,” he said.

Andrew Stein

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  • Micro targeting is as important to politics as it is to football. A club starting out looking for fans has to use micro targeting, to look for prospective fans, make contact, engage and turn into loyal fans. Micro targeting is the way to go for any organisation where loyalty is crucial.

  • Josh Fitzhugh

    Excellent, well researched article. Thanks for it.

  • Edie Bell-Brown

    Very good article…the one addition I might suggest is that Dean for America was instrumental back in 2003 in taking a voter file that contained some useful information, “scrubbing” it and using that to develop our ground game, which further “scrubbed” the file…as first a volunteer, then a DFA staffer (living in Vermont, but working in New Hampshire for both jobs)and eventually a candidate for VT state rep in ’04, I know personally how very important it was to “come into the 21st century”…the work that has been done since then was built upon that work, and has now been refined to a point where it is extremely valuable to the VDP, and I am sure throughout the 50 states…as a “phone bank captain” in the NEK, I saw the results of this hard work in action throughout the 2012 campaign, and it was key to our success during GOTV as you indicate…Thank you for YOUR fine work!

  • David Usher

    Excellent reporting! Thanks for the quality.

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