Memo: Feedback Loop Data from 214,000 Doors and Counting in Michigan

Data gathered between May and August, 2018

To: Michigan Organizations & Partners
From: For Our Future Michigan
RE: Feedback Loop Data from 214,000+ Doors and Counting in Michigan

In 2018, For Our Future MI, a project of For Our Future and For Our Future Action Fund, set out to knock as many doors as possible with one key, unique strategy in mind: listening to our neighbors about the issues that matter most to them. Between May and the August primary, our listening canvass resulted in more than 214,000 doors knocked, with tens of thousands of individual conversations.

Our theory of the case

For Our Future has a proven ability to scale. In 2016, we had over 2 million face-to-face conversations with voters talking about issues and candidates. In 2018, we plan to have 2.7 million conversations across seven states by Election Day.

Early conversations can help focus the later work. The dataset collected at the doors includes rich qualitative and quantitative data. So far this year, we’ve collected over 2 million data points. This data can help us make informed decisions in future messaging, targeting, and research.

FOFAF’s Michigan canvassers began every one of these conversations by asking the individual voter which issues mattered most to them, unprompted and open-ended, resulting in answers ranging from garbage being illegally dumped in the neighborhood, to international concerns.

In 2016, traditional polling missed the wave that swept over the so-called “Blue Wall” on Election Day and landed Donald Trump in the White House. Our trusted, traditional methods told us one thing yet we got a different reality. However, in states like ours, canvassers on the front lines were telling a different story about the types of conversations happening at the doors. When it comes to the issues that Michiganders care most about, polling offers a simplistic look, while open-ended conversations with voters can dive deeper into issues and the circumstances affecting them.

Our scripts double as a meaningful conversation and as a poll: we start with a non-leading ask about issues that affect their lives, then move on to more traditional questions about whether they plan to vote and if they support our candidates.

By talking with voters earlier in the year and putting an emphasis on listening rather than talking, we can rely on this information as being more valuable, and can use it to inform future conversations. Our canvassers are also acting as social scientists: reading tone and body language in their conversations, so results are not completely dependent on what a person says.

These conversations and our analysis will inform how we approach messaging and targeting in a statistically rigorous way, something that has not been done before.

This year, For Our Future Michigan has knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors in the following counties: Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Genesee, Washtenaw, Jackson, Ingham, Eaton, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, Kent, and Muskegon.

We have collected a great deal of meaningful data from these conversations that has allowed us to learn much about the core concerns of everyday hardworking Michigan families. At FOF Michigan we call this data and our tools of analyzing it: the Feedback Loop.

The Feedback Loop is focused on messaging, targeting, and future research that goes beyond this one election cycle. This current data set was collected by FOF-MI canvassers from May 28 — August 7, 2018. The top responses reflect the shared concerns of Michiganders statewide. However, the true value of this data lies in our regional breakdowns — as well as looking at responses over time.

One thing we heard on the doors and from our communications team talking with activists was a spike in Michiganders’ interest in immigration issues, just after media outlets released audio of crying children who had been separated from their families, leading to President Trump signing an executive order supposedly ending the practice, and nationwide protests calling on the Administration to keep families together. Using the feedback loop, we are able to compare this interest over time to what Michiganders are searching for on Google.

Key Results

Trump is very divisive. For voters who dislike Trump, we can drive even more action and support by talking negatively about him. For our persuasion voters, it’s better to avoid talking about Trump, so we don’t lose the opportunity to persuade a Trump supporter to vote for Gretchen Whitmer and other Democrats downballot.

Immigration is a wedge issue. Immigration is driving support and motivating people’s decisions to take future action on behalf of For Our Future.

Roads and bridges, along with interest in more education funding, are pervasive across the state. But the issues that voters talk about in Detroit are remarkably different from the rest of Michigan. This fact, along with the results of the August primary election, demands a focused strategic approach to engaging with and activating Detroiters. To that end we will be deploying Detroit-specific literature, written using data from the feedback loop, for our third pass through the universe.

Top Issues

Voters statewide care a great deal about fixing the roads and bridges, with the intensity often echoing a certain statewide candidate’s ubiquitous slogan. However, as we’ve seen in past cycles, the issue is at its peak when the snow melts and the roads are at their worst. As we’ve gotten deeper into summer and drivers have been dealing with orange barrels and road closures, the issue has slowly started giving way to education funding as a top priority.

Education funding is the issue most broadly embraced by frustrated voters regardless of region. Folks do not buy the Republican spin that they have done anything to fix our community public schools, and they question why that doesn’t seem to be more of a priority for elected officials. This will continue to be a key piece in framing Schuette, and the entire Republican ticket, as more interested in catering to their wealthy donors like Betsy DeVos than the working class.

Clean water, while not prominent among Detroiters, was broadly a strong issue statewide in other regions, and has quickly been rising in importance among all regions as news coverage has exposed this as an issue outside Flint. (Flint canvassing started after the statewide kickoff of Phase 1, but results weren’t significant enough to include in this analysis.) Voters have said things like “learning the water isn’t safe to drink is like learning Santa Claus isn’t real,” as they walk us through the emotional impact of learning all the different ways our current state government has betrayed their trust.

There are also pockets of traditionally Republican voters who swung away from Trump in 2016 (Oakland County, Kent County) where an animating factor has been gun violence prevention. We expect this to continue to be an under the radar issue that will nonetheless be motivating for key voters in battleground House and Senate races.

Finally, and most importantly, Detroit cannot be treated as just another sub-region of the statewide plan and message. Detroit voters rightly have their own frustrations and priorities, unsurprisingly including addressing the amount of crime in the city, abandoned houses, and redlining in auto insurance. Detroiters also want to see more education funding, although with the schools under state control for years, the newly elected school board, and the proliferation of low-quality charter schools run by for-profit management companies, this issue should be messaged differently than in the rest of the state, as well.

Going Forward

Next we’ll be building in data from online panels, giving us a richer set of data to analyze and allowing us to compare additional subgroups, and get up-to-date issue and candidate support scores.

Now that we’ve entered Phase 2 and we have Democratic nominees up and down the ballot, we’ve added a candidate support question to door scripts, so we can measure voters’ support compared to where we have them modeled to be.

Once we finish our first pass of Phase 2 doors, we’ll replace our issue petition that we ask our most committed supporters to sign, with a commit to vote card. This pivot will take place about one week before absentee ballot applications start being mailed to voters.

Recommended Action Steps

It should come as no surprise that people are angry. Their state and federal government are pictures of dysfunction, and at every turn government’s reaction when confronted with evidence of their failures has been to make excuses, blame others, or lie. Michiganders have a very strong sense of pride in our state, something Rick Snyder recognized and captured in both of his campaigns. That pride is wrapped up in our identity as blue collar, dedicated, self-sufficient, and problem-solving people. This is exactly why we are so outraged at the corruption and dysfunction that is pervasive in state government right now. Michiganders believe in fairness and loathe special treatment for the rich.

This creates opportunities for progressives when facing someone like Bill Schuette, who most voters recognize sides with big corporations over people like us.

The Democratic message should focus on how the Republican agenda has been favoring corporations and the wealthy over working people, whose incomes have not been keeping up with the cost of living.