Romney's Data Cruncher

By Chris Cillizza Staff Writer
Thursday, July 5, 2007

In late 2002, Alex Gage sold his share of a well-established polling firm and set about convincing Karl Rove that he had the answer to ensuring President Bush's reelection.

His pitch was simple: Take corporate America's love affair with learning everything it can about its customers, and its obsession with carving up the country into smaller and smaller clusters of like-minded consumers, and turn those trends into a political strategy. The Bush majority would be made up of thousands of groups of like-minded voters whom the campaign could reach with precisely the right message on the issues they considered most important.

At first, Rove and campaign manager Ken Mehlman had doubts about the potential of microtargeting, according to Bush pollster Matthew Dowd.

"I had to really sell Karl on it, and Ken to a degree," said Dowd, who said the skepticism was rooted in whether the investment in databases and computer modeling would yield better results than the traditional precinct-by-precinct targeting of likely supporters. "I told them it was going to a major expense on the front end to save money on the back end."

As a test, Gage was asked to produce targeted messages in several Pennsylvania judicial races in the fall of 2003. Why? The state offered a diverse mix of geography and ethnicity, and it almost certainly would be a battleground for both parties in 2004.

When the election was over, the Republican National Committee commissioned a poll to figure out whether Gage's suppositions about why people voted were accurate. Gage's models predicted voters' tendencies with 90 percent accuracy, according to Dowd, and Gage was hired to microtarget the 16 or so battleground states in the 2004 election.

It wasn't long before this new, more sophisticated form of data mining became part of the mythology surrounding Rove and his role as "the architect" of Bush's reelection. Its use in Ohio, in particular, was credited with unearthing Bush supporters and delivering the state and the election to him.

Now Gage is working for another Republican presidential candidate entranced by the possibilities of microtargeting -- Mitt Romney. A Harvard Business School graduate who went on to head Bain Capital, Romney has made a point of adapting modern business techniques to politics, and it was in his successful 2002 campaign to be governor of Massachusetts that Gage's methods were first tried.

"The governor believes in accountability, benchmarks and metrics," said Beth Myers, Romney's campaign manager, explaining his interest in microtargeting. "He believes in using data when it comes to making decisions."

Describing what he does, Gage, 57, sounds part marketer, part political strategist -- and more than a little Big Brother. "Microtargeting is trying to unravel your political DNA," he said. "The more information I have about you, the better."

The more information he has, the better he can group people into "target clusters" with names such as "Flag and Family Republicans" or "Tax and Terrorism Moderates." Once a person is defined, finding the right message from the campaign becomes fairly simple.

" 'Flag and Family Republicans' might receive literature on a flag-burning amendment from its sponsor, while 'Tax and Terrorism Moderates' get an automated call from [former New York mayor] Rudy Giuliani talking about the war on terror, even if they lived right next door to one another," Alex Lundry, the senior research director of TargetPoint -- the firm Gage founded in 2003 -- wrote recently in Winning Campaigns magazine.

CONTINUED     1              >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company