According to a November 10 Daily Beast analysis, it was flawed computer modeling that lost the Iowa US Senate race for Democrat Bruce Braley. But that analysis is as flawed as writer Ben Jacobs says the computer models were. It wasn’t computer modeling that lost the election; it was human error, in the form of two very wrong marketing decisions, which “sabotaged” the Democrats’ stepped-up ground game. One was a decision about target audience and the other about media.
The first wrong decision was to go after the high-hanging fruit, i.e., going after potential voters who’d produce less return for more effort. “[I]n the crucial swing [state] of Iowa…the DSCC [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee] made a decision in September to put an increased emphasis on persuasion, talking undecided voters into supporting Democratic candidates rather than turning out its base voters,” writes Ben Jacobs. “In other words, instead of going after the type of people who reliably vote Democrat but don’t reliably show up on Election Day, they focused on voters who were somewhat more likely to vote but hadn’t firmly made up their minds.”
Targeting an audience segment that “included 33 percent Republicans and 50 percent independents” misdirected volunteers into “calling some of the wrong voters and knocking some of the wrong doors,” neglecting the Braley campaign’s base.
In adition to targeting the wrong audience, the Democrats invested media dollars to reach them through the wrong advertising medium. Specifically, they chose to use direct mail, which is much better at efficiency than effectiveness. While those two words sound similar, and both are good things to achieve, they mean very different things. Efficiency is a measure of how many demographically or behaviorally qualified consumers you get for your money. Direct mail is very, very good at this, and over the course of the Iowa campaign it brought those Republican and independent voters “at least 10 different pieces of direct mail in addition to whatever television and radio advertisements they saw or listened to.”
But effectiveness is different; that’s a measure of the number of responses you get for your money. Historically, the response rate for direct mail averages 1.4 percent. Moreover, it’s a medium for quick action, not long-term persuasion,. Its already low average response rate deteriorates as difficulty or delay in responding increases. (That’s why most direct mail pieces are based on a deal or offer you have to act on right away.) Filling out and mailing an early ballot you might have lying around your house adds difficulty (compared to calling a toll-free number or clicking an order form online), while waiting until Election Day to vote adds delay.
Thanks to these bad decisions, “more than 60 percent of voters in this group who actually turned out on Election Day supported Republican candidates.” Instead of getting projected 65 percent support from independents – fully half of the targeted group – Braley “ended up much closer to 50 percent.”
On Election Day, “there appeared to be about 20,000 to 30,000 Democratic voters in the Hawkeye State” – voters that the volunteer and direct mail campaign specifically didn’t target – “who didn’t show up…”
Of course, when you consider that Braley lost by three to five times that many votes, those two bad marketing decisions didn’t make a decisive difference. But then again, they didn’t particularly help.
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