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Oh, The Places They'll Go (To Find a Few More Voters)

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, October 22 2012

On September 3rd, Labor Day, I got a curious email from Jim Messina, the campaign manager for Barack Obama. "Join Sportsmen for Obama," read the subject line. Inside were 195 words of simple prose extolling "America's great outdoors" and President Obama's efforts to preserve "our states' natural wonders and limited resources."

The email reminded me of something an aide to Vermont's most popular politician, Bernie Sanders, had once told me. There are a lot of people who don't call themselves environmentalists but who care about the environment. To connect with them, you have to use different language, he said, like "preserving the natural habitat" rather than saving the planet. Visiting hunting lodges to talk about protecting natural resources for hunting and fishing and establishing a connection with these men was one of the ways that Sanders managed to earn the trust of the predominantly conservative and working class Northeast Kingdom section of Vermont, which regularly gives Sanders, a self-declared socialist, its hearty support. Clearly, the Sportsmen for Obama email showed that the Obama campaign was itself in the hunt for an elusive sliver of new supporters, men who like the outdoors.

About three weeks later came another email from Bruce Wicks, a longtime U.S. Forest Service employee who is also the father of Buffy Wicks, one of the Obama campaign's top organizers. Titled "National Hunting and Fishing Day," it also harped on Obama's efforts , citing "the substantial investments made in conserving and restoring our most treasured fish and wildlife habitats, and the launch of the America's Great Outdoors initiative, which is educating young sportsmen and inspiring more people to get out and enjoy the outdoors." And it too urged me to join Sportsmen for Obama.

This is one of many untold pieces of the presidential campaign, how both sides are looking in every nook and cranny for new sources of support, using ever more fine-grained pitches aimed at demographically plausible slices of the electorate. Occasionally those appeals surface in odd ways, as in the news a few weeks back that the Romney campaign was targeting people concerned about the spread of Lyme disease in Virginia. Most of the time, these efforts go unheralded. But arguably, they add up.

According to Dashboard, the Obama campaign's field organizing tool, Sportsmen for Obama is a pretty modest group. Since June, its 164 members have logged roughly 1,600 phone calls made on behalf of the campaign (out of nearly 9,000 calls attempted), 510 doors knocked, 233 door conversations held, and 61 one-on-one meetings with voters.

These numbers pale against the biggest online groups on Dashboard, like African Americans for Obama, which has about 3,300 members and has generated 11,000 voter registrations, 46,000 phone calls connected, and 25,000 door conversations held, according to its Dashboard page.

But a glance at the Sportsmen for Obama page shows how hard the campaign works for even the smallest gains. Erin Hannigan, the group's online leader, has sent dozens of emails to its members. Most of these are the same generic emails everyone on the Obama campaign gets, like the fundraising pitches that have become ubiquitous, and which ProPublica has been tracking in great detail with its Message Machine project.

But the 1,500 emails from Obama collected by Message Machine only scratch the surface of what the campaign has been sending out, if Sportsmen for Obama is any indication. Hannigan has sent out several emails that are truly micro-targeted to sportsmen, with titles like "Administration Expanding Hunter Access in Wildlife Refuges" and "An Ohio Sportsman Shares Why 'He's in'" and "Numbers of American Hunters and Anglers are on the Rise."

Those numbers don't appear to be on the rise for Obama, but that hasn't stopped the campaign from trying.