scorecardresearch Skip to main content

For Charlie Baker, data is key in bid for undecideds

GOP banking on voter details

Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker spoke to reporters after a debate last week. His team has built a get-out-the-vote machine, a “supercomputer” scheme outpacing any past statewide GOP effort in Massachusetts. Elise Amendola /associated press/Associated Press

During the past year, Charlie Baker’s campaign has quietly constructed a get-out-the-vote machine that outpaces any statewide Republican effort in Massachusetts history, hoping to whittle Democrats’ historically massive advantage in the art of mobilizing supporters on Election Day.

Together with the state Republican Party, Baker’s campaign has spent $2 million building the most detailed portrait of the state’s electorate any Republican here has ever had, collecting data on everything from classic car ownership to musical preference to one’s level of fondness for sweet baked goods.

It’s a modernization consistent with campaigns across the nation, but novel for a state GOP that has often lagged in innovation.


To supplement the information, Baker, who is locked in a tight race with Democratic Attorney General Martha Coakley, has added a more sophisticated door-knocking blueprint that, while it still pales in comparison with the Democrats’ well-honed enterprise, is far more robust than GOP candidates usually rely on here. But just how successful the effort has been will not be truly tested until Election Day.

“It’s nothing like what’s been done by a Republican in Massachusetts before,” said Brian Wynne, director of Mass. Victory, the state GOP’s coordinated campaign efforts, which funnels voter information from 75 campaigns, down to the state representative level, into a centralized database known, somewhat anachronistically, as “the supercomputer.”

“Charlie thinks he got severely outplayed, severely,” on the ground in 2010 when he tried to unseat Governor Deval Patrick, said Baker campaign manager Jim Conroy. The current effort, Conroy said, has drawn Republicans “dead even” with Democrats in the competition for the most useful data.

Massachusetts Republicans have been competitive statewide when they effectively sell the message that Beacon Hill needs a counterbalance to a Democratic majority, and when they raise enough money to broadcast that message. Bill Weld, Mitt Romney, Paul Cellucci, and Scott Brown all scored victories in that manner.


What has historically been missing is any semblance of a “ground game,” the nuts and bolts of identifying voters likely to vote for their candidate and then delivering them to the polls. That dimension has been owned by Democrats, particularly during the eras of Michael Dukakis and Patrick, both evangelists of grass-roots politics.

That machine has helped Democrats establish an almost unblemished record in the past several years, flooding the polls with enough voters on Election Day to help even damaged candidates such as US Representative John F. Tierney, who narrowly beat Richard Tisei in 2012 despite being beset by personal problems. Tierney this year lost his Democratic primary to Seth Moulton, who will face Tisei in November.

When Coakley lost to Brown in the special election for the US Senate in 2010 — the Democrats’ most recent loss in a statewide or congressional race — many pointed to the party’s failure to activate their ground operation until it was too late.

Republicans now have 25 paid field staffers and 27 field offices responsible for various pockets of the state, about six times what they had in 2010, Wynne said. Volunteers and staffers have made more than 1.2 million phone calls, and are certain by the Nov. 4 election to easily surpass the 1.5 million placed in 2012 on behalf of Brown in his Senate race against Elizabeth Warren. They have knocked on 180,000 doors, far more than the 110,000 hit in 2012.


Still, Republicans are merely shaving the opposition’s advantage, not even hoping to match the Democrats’ efforts.

“At the end of the day, I’m sure they’re going to do more door knocks,” Conroy said.

That’s probably a fairly stark understatement.

Matt Fenlon, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said the Democrats had started their coordinated campaign effort earlier than usual, cognizant that Baker probably would have a relatively unfettered path to the GOP nomination. In February, party strategists began meeting with aides to Patrick, the party’s Washington delegation, State House leadership, and organized labor, trying to calibrate efforts.

The Democratic field army, Fenlon said, has made 725,000 calls and banged on 700,000 doors since July 1.

“We were talking to sporadic-voting Democrats, letting them know what’s at stake in this election, and why it’s important they get out and vote in the midterm,” said Fenlon.

But the fact that there is an integrated Republican data and field operation at all marks a significant departure from previous years when that effort, Wynne said, amounted to “a couple of guys thrown into a couple of offices with a month and a half to go.”

This year, the extensive data-culling effort has produced an impressive — even unnerving — lode of information. Baker aides say they have piled up 5,000 data points on every potential Baker voter, in an operation that Conroy called “light-years ahead” of President Obama’s vaunted 2008 voter-targeting apparatus, largely credited with revolutionizing campaigns. The Baker information lode is built on records from previous campaigns, donor information, and consumer data, much of which is supplied by the Republican National Committee.


Wynne speaks in excited tones about field metrics dashboards, Web-based predictive dialer applications that make calling potential supporters easier, and “text-based Twitter targeting,” a program that scans voters’ Twitter feeds for indications of how they might vote.

The campaign’s lens has been so fine that it used the campaign’s “supercomputer” model to determine whether the type of siding on a voter’s home could be a useful electoral predictor. (The good news, for those leery of receiving political appeals based on whether they are the stucco or brick type — it’s not.)

Wynne acknowledged that the amount of personal information the campaign has amassed has a vaguely creepy feel to it, saying that when he describes the project to potential donors, “Those people are terrified what we know about them.”

Conroy called the data and field combination a fundamental part of the campaign’s fund-raising appeal: “We’re out pitching it a lot.”

In sum, the innards of the Baker campaign — which aides have closely guarded for more than a year — look very little like previous GOP efforts, which have been centered on fund-raising and messaging. And, say aides, the emphasis has been largely Baker’s decision.

When Conroy interviewed with Baker for the campaign’s top post, he said, the ground game constituted “the majority of what we talked about.”

And the effort has had tangible effects not just in the Baker campaign’s messaging and voter targeting, but in Baker’s own personal cartography. A map in a conference room of Baker’s fifth-floor headquarters, in a space that staffers say is a former sleep health center, shows in red the municipalities that hold the most Republican votes. That’s not the suburban and rural areas where Republicans usually win by the largest margin, but areas where the highest total number of potential Baker voters live: Springfield, Worcester, Haverhill, Lowell, Boston, Quincy, Plymouth, Fall River, New Bedford. None of them are GOP strongholds, but all of them, due to their population density, offer plenty of Republicans.


According to Wynne, there are 21,000 registered Republicans within a 2-mile radius of the campaign headquarters, a span that includes Allston, Brookline, and Cambridge — among the most liberal precincts in the country.

That focus — on raw totals, not ratios — explains why Baker’s campaign calendar has been so urban-centric during the past year, surprising some Democratic insiders who have grown accustomed to seeing their own candidates make regular stops there while Republican hopefuls have regularly eschewed cities outside Boston, where much of the political press corps is headquartered.

Bay State Republicans can be forgiven skepticism about the Baker campaign’s ultra-modern, mobile-optimized, “supercomputer”-based scheme. After all, that’s a fairly apt description of ORCA, Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign’s application that was highly touted but ultimately malfunctioned on Election Day.

And, of course, Republicans have never competed with Democrats in any concrete way in this arena.

But that, to Baker and his staffers, may be the underlying purpose: like one of Wynne’s treasured data models, minimizing risk and minimizing loss.

“The point of this program is: If you don’t play on the ground at all, you’re going to lose,” Wynne said.

Jim O’Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @JOSreports.