The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee built an in-house polling and voter-file targeting operation this cycle as it sought a strategic edge over its Republican counterpart.
In an interview with Roll Call, Aaron Strauss, head of the expanded DCCC team, revealed the plan implemented early in the cycle to overcome the combined spending advantage of the National Republican Congressional Committee and GOP super PACs.
The cornerstone of the committee’s strategy involved assembling the kind of voter targeting operation usually undertaken by presidential campaigns and national party committees to better sift through the vast valley of Congressional districts in search of persuadable voters and winnable seats. The DCCC’s polling unit, meanwhile, allows the committee to conduct its own auto-dial surveys to better and more quickly gauge voter sentiment in House districts where such data is often sparse.
The idea is to have a deeper understanding of targeted voters in potential swing districts and the ability to take their temperature to see what messages are working and whether the needle is moving.
“We know our message wins, but it’s critical we focus in the right districts and reach the best voters,” DCCC Executive Director Robby Mook said in a statement. “To combat the surge in outside super PAC spending for Republicans, we have to be more efficient, faster and smarter with every one of our dollars.”
So the DCCC named Strauss, a former senior analyst at the Democratic polling firm the Mellman Group, as director of data and targeting. Reporting to Strauss is an eclectic group of five regional targeting directors, one for each part of the country in which the committee also has an assigned press secretary. Strauss said that the goals of his team are twofold.
“One is finding the districts that are the real good marginal districts, or the ones that are up-and-coming and about to be the marginal districts,” he said. “The second is figuring out the best people to contact for GOTV and persuasion. Layered on top of that is understanding the effect of TV advertisements and mail pieces on those folks.”
Strauss would not delve too deeply into the committee’s voter targeting techniques, but said they are similar to what direct-mail firms have done for years. That includes building a database matching prospective voters with consumer data to help figure out if a voter is persuadable.
That, Strauss said, mixed with the experience of the direct-mail vendors the committee works with, has led to more effective mail and field programs, and has allowed the DCCC to focus its spending on the voters it deems “moveable.”
Strauss also counts on the DCCC’s interactive voice response polling, which can offer accurate topline data, such as horse-race numbers and favorable ratings. Unlike Senate contests, public polling for House races is sporadic at best. So an IVR poll in the field for just one day can give the committee basic information it otherwise wouldn’t have.
All of the human work for the polls — writing, recording, sampling and analyzing — takes place inside DCCC headquarters and can be done for a fraction of the cost of an outsourced poll. The DCCC did not disclose the cost.
“Our IVRs really help us understand the landscape,” Strauss said, “and we’re able to launch them very quickly.”
But, he said an IVR poll lacks the deeper and richer data a polling firm’s work provides, which is why this committee and others still rely on them. No one knows that better than Strauss.
He is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate with a Ph.D. from Princeton. His staff includes another Ph.D., as well as a professional poker player and people from the direct-mail world. Before joining Mark Mellman’s firm, Strauss worked for Harrison Hickman on Al Gore’s presidential campaign, assisting with resource allocation — where to place ads and where the candidate should visit.
Strauss is a proponent of incorporating science into politics and mentioned the voter contact experimentation being done at the Analyst Institute as an inspiration for what is being done at the DCCC this cycle.
“I think that scientific mentality that they bring to politics is something that we want to ingrain in DCCC and campaign decision-making,” Strauss said. “The more we rely on data combined with experience, and the less we rely on just gut feeling, the better.”
The results of the DCCC’s internal IVR polling haven’t all been for internal use. The committee has released several to the media in the form of polling memos to help further its preferred narrative in a particular race: namely, that the contest is tightening or a Democrat is leading.
The NRCC conducts in-house IVR polling as well, under the direction of Brock McCleary, the deputy political and polling director.
“We’ve been doing it primarily to spot-check races, do a lot of message testing,” McCleary said. “You’re looking for a trend.”
The NRCC hasn’t released any of its internal polling yet, but it’s likely to do so soon. McCleary said the targeting and polling operation has been especially helpful following redistricting.
It’s been “running fresh data to figure out what would past electoral results look like in a newly drawn district,” McCleary said. “So there has been a very heavy focus — I know there was here, and I’m sure there was with [the DCCC] — on having good, solid data and understanding these districts. Particularly the California districts.”
The Golden State’s 53 districts were redrawn last year by an independent redistricting commission, with many left unrecognizable.
Based on voter targeting data and toplines from a recent IVR poll, Strauss said he was enthusiastic about California’s 36th district. Earlier in the day, Roll Call reported that the DCCC had shifted money and was going on the air there against Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R), something it hadn’t done in at least the past two cycles.
“The best district that we want to find is a district that is winnable with our help,” Strauss said. “There is the converse, too. We want to know if one of our incumbents is in a lot more trouble than we thought. We want to know that, and make sure they don’t lose.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.