Clinton Has Learned from Her 2008 Mistakes

Back in early April 2008, I wrote a piece on the state of the Democratic primaries in which I recommended that Clinton drop out. Still, I acknowledged that there had been upsides to her campaigning to that point, and potential upsides to her staying in the race:

The long and competitive primary on the Democratic side is going to prove extremely valuable for the Get Out the Vote effort this November, and it will also provide a wealth of data on a county-by-county basis for the Democratic nominee. Barack Obama will be able to see exactly where he is strong and weak in every state, while John McCain will be flying blind in most of them.

Many Clinton supporters cite things like this to defend her continued presence in the race, and they have a good point. Yet, I want to make an additional point. Of the remaining states after Pennsylvania, none are critical to a Democratic win in November. It’s possible that in a blow-out election that Obama could win North Carolina, Indiana, and Montana, but there just isn’t that much upside to getting more organization and information out of those states when you compare it to the potential downside of negative campaigning and lost time and resources.

Some have pointed out that the downside would be largely removed if Clinton were to stick to substance and run a positive campaign. First, that’s not really true. Obama would rather campaign in Colorado and Nevada than South Dakota and Puerto Rico. Second, Clinton’s surrogates are going around saying that they don’t think a black man can win. That’s not positive, and it’s not helpful. And it’s not likely to stop until her campaign quits.

Asking her to be positive is all well and good, but it’s basically like spitting in the wind. And all you have to ask is: who has a better chance? The black man, or Hillary Clinton after taking the nomination away from the black man in a brokered convention in late August? The question answers itself.

When the general election was over and I had a chance to look back, I attributed Clinton’s refusal to drop out to being the decisive factor in Obama winning in Indiana and North Carolina that year. As a result, I recanted on some of the above argument. The reason that Obama beat John McCain and Sarah Palin in those two traditionally Republican states (by the slimmest of margins) is because his data team and his organizers had to work over that territory with a fine-toothed comb to maximize his delegate haul against Clinton. Four years later, with a little less magic in his fuel-pack, and without having to weather a competitive primary, Indiana and North Carolina reverted back to the red column.

Throughout the 2008 primary, Obama enjoyed an immense advantage over the team Clinton had assembled. Most glaringly, Team Obama understood that the competition was for delegates, not votes and not states. In many congressional districts (say, districts with four delegates), both candidates were assured of getting two delegates unless one of them fell below 25% of the vote. And two-thirds of the delegates were assigned by congressional district. Therefore, Obama’s organizers and campaign team focused like a laser on odd-numbered delegate districts. This informed where Obama campaigned, where he advertised, who his people called, which doors got knocked, and how he polled.

This time around, the Clinton campaign has it all figured out, and the man in charge is named Elan Kriegel. Kriegal commands a high salary and a corner office in the Brooklyn headquarters, and the campaign makes few major decisions without his input. See if this sounds familiar:

First, the campaign ranked every congressional district by the probability that campaigning there could “flip” a delegate into Clinton’s column. Because every district has a different number of delegates allocated proportionally (in Ohio, for instance, 12 districts had 4 delegates each while one had 17), this involved polling and modeling Clinton’s expected support level, gauging the persuadability of voters in a particular area and then seeing how close Clinton was to a threshold that would tip another delegate in her direction. (At the most basic level, for instance, districts with an even number of delegates, say 4, are far less favorable terrain, as she and Bernie Sanders were likely split them 2-2 unless one of them achieved 75 percent of the vote.)

That so-called “flippability score” was then layered atop which media markets covered which seats. If a media market touched multiple districts with high “flippability” scores, it shot up the rankings. Then the algorithm took in pricing information, and what television programs it predicted the most “flippable” voters would be watching, to determine what to buy.

If that all sounds simple enough, it’s not. Every TV market reaches a different number of voters in a different number of districts, with her support in each a different estimated distance from a delegate threshold. Calculating where dollars would go furthest, per delegate, was an incredible statistical undertaking that was months in the making.
In the end, whatever the algorithms spat out, the campaign pretty much bought. “We relied almost entirely on them,” Mook said.

This was the kind of analysis I was doing in 2008, as well as colleagues like PsiFighter37 and Al Giordano. And it’s the kind of analysis that Clinton’s team, led by Mark Penn, was not doing. As I pointed out to Jerome Armstrong at the time, there was a huge penalty for not understanding the rules and not employing the latest in statistical analysis.

Jerome claims that Obama is ‘gaming the system’, but that is just a petulant way of saying that Obama’s campaign understands the system, while Hillary Clinton’s campaign does (or did) not.

After all, in a contest for delegates, what good does it do to ‘win’ Nevada and lose a delegate? What sense does it make to spend millions to get a 59-48 delegate advantage out of New Jersey only to see Obama spend $50,000 to get a 15-3 advantage out of Idaho?

But now it is Donald Trump who is running blind and Hillary Clinton who has learned from her mistakes.

The breakdown of the buy in Texas, powered by Kriegel’s modeling, shows how Clinton’s TV ads budget hunted for delegates, not votes. Texas is the rare state that used state legislative districts to award delegates, and Clinton spent $1.2 million on broadcast and cable ads even as she won the state by 32 percentage points. Sanders spent $0. She spent more on ads in tiny Brownsville ($127,000) and Waco ($142,000), ranked as the 86th and 87th largest media markets in the country, as she did in Houston ($105,000), the 10th largest, according to ad data provided by a media tracker.
It paid off: In Texas alone, Clinton netted 72 delegates more than Sanders — a margin that more than offset all the Sanders’ primary and caucus wins through March 1.

In other words, science, how does it work?

Trump doesn’t believe this science stuff can help or hurt him, which is why he’s as likely to be campaigning in Connecticut as Ohio. But he’s being outwitted.

Among the pioneering areas Kriegel’s analytics team has studied, according to people familiar with the operation, is gauging not just whom to talk to, how to talk to them and what to say — but when to say it. Is the best time to contact a voter, say, 90 days before the election? 60 days? One week? The night before? It is a question Obama’s team realized was crucial to mobilizing voters in 2012 but hed never been truly analyzed. With a full calendar of competitive primaries, Kreigel and his team had plenty of chances to run rigorous, control-group experiments to ferret out answers to such questions earlier this year.

Clinton has the basics figured out now, and her campaign is efficient and evidence-based. They pulled their advertising out of Virginia for a reason. Does Trump have a similar basis for putting his ad money into Virginia?

Donald Trump will spend more money this week in Virginia than anywhere else. Of the $3.5 million in advertising time he’s booked, $1.9 million will go into the commonwealth. More specifically, $1.4 million will be spent in the D.C. market.

This is notable because the Clinton campaign is so confident about its prospects that it has aired no ads on broadcast television in the state since Aug. 1. And the main pro-Clinton super PAC has canceled all of its reservations through the election.

The answer is ‘no.’ He’s buying there because he has to win Virginia, not because he hired some brainiacs to tell him how to get the best bang for his buck.

If Virginia gets worrisome for Clinton, she’ll hear about it first from Elan Kriegel, and they’ll make the needed adjustments.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.