Instead of trying to win over potential Romney voters with broadcast or online ads, conspicuous direct mail, or cultivating media coverage, the campaign used a new tool to narrowly target potential 2012 voters. So-called tele-town halls would ring an individual voter’s phone with a recorded message inviting him or her to participate in a conference call with the candidate. When a voter chose to participate, an automated prompt would ask for the same information that would be solicited by volunteer ID calls: who a voter supported, how likely they were to caucus. Romney’s team was able to put together different universes for each. Supporters would be invited to “friends and allies” calls (in one, Romney assuaged those made uneasy about attacks on his health care record). Persuasion targets who were modeled to care about the economy were invited to hear Romney introduce his jobs plan; those concerned about immigration were alerted to a call with Arizona sheriff Paul Babeu, a Romney surrogate.
The tele-town halls proved popular—often tens of thousands of voters would listen in—and, at only pennies each, fused a persuasive medium like a radio ad or a candidate visit with the ability of automated survey calls to measure response. Most of the Republican caucus campaigns used these tele-town halls to inexpensively reach voters spread out geographically, but they had a particular value to Romney as he tried to add voters who hadn’t been with him in 2008. The tele-town halls allowed him to make his case to targeted groups of Iowans on specific issues without raising media alerts that he was aggressively contesting the state.
On caucus day, Romney’s staff was confident in their vote count, although aware that they had dramatically underestimated turnout four years earlier in a way that made their counts irrelevant to projecting the outcome. But even this time, Romney had an advantage over rivals who hadn’t competed before in Iowa: The campaign had ranked the state’s 1,774 precincts into five tiers based on which ones would offer the best return-on-investment to Romney. The highest tiers were the ones that had produced the most votes for Romney and Branstad, and it was there the campaign first worked to enlist precinct leaders: A volunteer representative who speaks publicly on the campaign’s behalf and is authorized, under caucus rules, to observe the vote-counting. Romney’s campaign set up a phone center in Des Moines for those precinct leaders to call in with the local returns—so he could maintain his own statewide count in case of irregularities or a close race.Romney’s team got that close race, and after the caucus results were counted his advisers appeared a bit shocked that Santorum had emerged in the last two weeks to come within eight votes of their total. But that might not have been the most revealing margin of the night. Romney closed out his Iowa campaign with 30,015 votes, six fewer than the number that resigned him to second place in 2008. Four years later, he was still stuck at 25 percent, but he left the state a winner.