WASHINGTON—A top strategist for President Obama’s 2012 campaign detailed how their data team crushed GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s condensed general election effort during a panel discussion on united technology with communications and data at the Campaign Tech Conference.
Amelia Showalter, Organizing for America’s (OFA) director of digital analytics, said that the campaign to reelect an incumbent president benefited from its head start. But OFA also gained a competitive edge by revolutionizing recruiting practices for campaign staffers. Obama’s team threw out the old playbook to seek the savviest Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, programs and researchers.
“Almost everyone I hired was new to politics, new to digital,” she said. “I looked for people who were really smart and had a strong background in statistics and data. A lot of it was on the job training.”
Perhaps no one embodies that dynamic more than Harper Reed, the campaign’s chief technology officer, a plug-earing wearing, beared ginger who joined the campaign from e-commerce and design website Threadless.com. His personal website’s tag is “Probably one of the coolest guys ever.” The campaign’s chief scientist Rayid Ghani previously directed analytics research at Accenture. The campaign’s irreverently titled “Undersecretary for Internet Wildlife Preservation and Regulation” Mark Trammell is a former Twitter design researcher.
In June 2011, OFA sent a select pool of donors in technology, data and design fields an unusual pitch: “We think you might know someone who should quit his or her job and come work on the Obama campaign’s digital team for the next 18 months,” the campaign wrote, according to a post-election report from Engage, a D.C.-based GOP consulting firm. “It won’t pay very well. The hours are terrible… Most people who come to work here will take a pay cut.”
The strategy worked, as Obama successfully recruited Silicon Valley luminaries who raised the bar for technology and data in campaigns.
“Digital is still kind of the Wild West,” Showalter said. “So having a new perspective was really helpful.” Moreover, adding outside experts allowed the campaign to shift into a higher gear more rapidly.
“It wasn’t just that we had some extra time—I started a year and a half before Election Day—we were building on a base of people [from the 2008 campaign]… and really taking everything to the next level,” she said.
Showalter stressed the importance of keeping as much of the campaign’s digital team in-house at the Chicago-based headquarters. She led a 15-person digital analytics team, part of OFA’s 200-person strong digital department (data and tech staffers composed 30-40 percent of OFA’s headquarters staff).
“We had the resources to be able to build so many things in house so there weren’t so many payments to outside consultants and we could have things customized,” she said.
In contrast, the Romney campaign emerged from the bruising GOP primary cycle with five dedicated digital staffers. That team grew to 32 people (with only 17 in-house) during the general election campaign. The Obama campaign also built a network of 4.4 million donors and a 16 million-strong email list, compared to 1.1 donors to Romney’s campaign, which had an email list of 2-3 million supporters, according to Engage’s “Inside the Cave” analysis of both team’s metrics.
Warner Jones, the digital program manager at Romney for President, joined the Boston-based campaign in May as one of the first new hires after primary. In contrast to the Obama campaign, the Romney operation struggled to recruit technology professionals outside the Beltway, party because of a tension between asking tech CEOs for money or recruiting help.
“Starting at a standstill against [the Obama] juggernaut was not a fair battle,” he said. “We were expected to build applications, microsites, and stores from literally nothing against a campaign that had been working on this stuff for six years.”
The Romney campaign prioritized voter data collection and fundraising, but “a lot of the other stuff fell by the wayside” because of the time crunch, Jones said. In the future, Republicans and Democrats—some of whom seem frustrated that Obama has transferred his data operation to a 501(c)(4), Organizing for America, instead of the DNC—will seek to avoid a weakened nominee without such a digital infrastructure.
“The big lesson learned for both Democrats and Republicans: this stuff is going to have to reside at the RNC or the DNC to actually be sustainable for candidates,” said Sean Noble, the founder of DC-London, Inc. and a former chief of staff to former Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz.
Unless a candidate can invest in technology infrastructure during a primary campaign, they will need to engage their party committee or independent groups to supplement their data operations, he said.
“Campaigns that will be successful will be the ones that don’t look at guys like me, who are political hacks, but look for [technologists],” Noble said.
Alex Kellner, the digital director of Terry McAuliffe for Governor in Virginia, said that non-presidential campaigns must manage with more limited resources, as it’s impossible for a gubernatorial or U.S. Senate campaign to build an Obama-sized operation with the resources available and economy of scale limitations.
Kellner, who worked in a similar role for Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., last cycle, said that he wished the campaign had a better digital infrastructure with more resources available when GOP candidate Todd Akin made his infamous “legitimate rape” comments last August that upended his campaign.
Panel participants also keyed on the need to view digital operations as a force-multiplier for one-the-ground, in-person organizing and engagement. Noble described the varying tech strength of the presidential campaigns and political parties as an “arms war.”
“Democrats are ahead. Republicans are behind,” he said. “That makes it exciting. Because, ultimately, those of us that follow tech or are in tech, the bottom line is it all comes down to people. OFA would have beaten Romney with paper walk books, because they had so many people on the ground.”
Strategists said that wariness about “Big Data” is misplaced. Most campaigns use data to make the voter contact process more “human and personal,” Showalter said.
“So much of what we learned on the Obama campaign with data is that it’s not just knowing about every little aspect of people’s lives; it’s about listening to them,” she said. “When we sent out many different versions of an email, we were able to see what was really popular and what people responded to the most.”
“The term Big Data might sound scary, but I don’t think it has to be,” she said.
Noble echoed that sentiment.
“You’re trying to figure out what moves people. They Holy Grail of all this is persuasion,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to look at things in 3D. It’s got to be a much richer environment, because that allows you to predict what will move people. Does it sound scary? Yeah, but it’s for a good cause.”
Moreover, the increasing focus on data brings a more analytic, venture capital approach to politics that adds accountability to the political consulting industry, which has infamously relied on uninformed intuition in describing deciding factors among the multitude of variables at play in an election.
In the next cycle, consultants touting their prowess will have to convince donors with analytics to separate their brilliance from the bullshit. In a competitive landscape of House and Senate races in 2014 and a wide-open 2016 presidential cycle, both sides will spend the next few years fine-tuning their tactics for the campaigns of the future.
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