A consensus is developing in the post-mortem analyses of the 2012 presidential election that technology, combined increasingly with behavioral science understanding of voting behavior, were decisive advantages that led Team Obama to victory.
As a result, the prognosis for all future elections is relatively simple: Here come the geeks!
“Smoke filled rooms” that in bygone days were the domain of ward bosses are about to be replaced with “computer caves” where the denizens are increasingly likely to be academics more comfortable with a computer keyboard who have never actually had an in-person conversation with a voter.
The emerging conclusion is that Obama beat Romney the minute the Chicago-based bosses who managed his campaign, including Jim Messina and David Plouffe, applied ward politics to the Internet age.
In a three-part series published by Technology Review in December, Sasha Issenberg, the author of the groundbreaking book “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns,” concluded Obama’s data techniques will rule future elections.
“What [the Obama campaign analytics] gave us was the ability to run a national presidential campaign the way you’d do a local ward campaign,” Simas told Issenberg. “You know the people on your block. People have relationships with one another, and you leverage them so you know the way they talk about issues, what they’re discussing at the coffee shop.”
The Romney campaign placed emphasis on traditional techniques of presidential campaigning – messaging and mass media advertising, focusing largely on television.
By contrast, the Obama campaign focused on Internet profiling of voters to develop voter contact information that micromanaged campaign messaging to fit the voter profile, while concentrating on fund-raising and “ground-game” efforts to get out the vote, known in professional political circles by the acronym GOTV.
Senior Editor Alexis Madrigal, writing in the Atlantic 10 days after the election noted that on Oct. 21, the Obama campaign shock-tested Narwhal, the code name for the Obama campaign data platform, putting the technology through what geeks call “live action role playing,” or “LARPing,” to determine how the computer system would perform under every possible disaster situation.
Narwhal predictably crashed, providing Obama computer experts with the information the campaign’s tech team needed to build redundant systems and put fixes in place so the computer system worked under the stress of Election Day – when thousands of volunteers in the field would need to use it.
The Romney campaign had never bothered to beta-test its get-out-the-vote computer system, code-named “Orca.” Predictably, Orca crashed on Election Day, leaving thousands of Romney volunteers standing around unable to tell headquarters in Boston who had voted and to get instructions about which voters still needed to be brought to the polls.
A 93-page analysis, “Inside the Cave: An In-Depth Look at the Digital, Technology, and Analytic Operations of Obama for America,” produced by Engage, a Republican Party-oriented competitor in the field of technology-based political marketing, makes clear how computer technology, behavioral science analysis of voters and Internet sophistication gave Team Obama a decisive edge.
As detailed in the Engage report, the Obama campaign had 1,979 employees registered on Linkedin.com, 4.4 million donors and a list of 16 million email addresses, compared to the Romney campaign’s 369 employees registered on Linkedin.com, 1.1 million donors and 2 to 3 million email addresses.
Moreover, “Inside the Cave” makes clear the Obama team used experimental trials to test every aspect of the campaign before it was put to use, including testing multiple alternative designs of email fundraising campaigns before any fundraising emails were sent to see which version was likely to produce the most dollar returns in campaign contributions.
Patrick Ruffini, president of Engage, did not return multiple WND phone calls and emails asking for an interview about his firm billed as “a full-service interactive agency with a track record of winning the toughest battles in politics and public policy,” including holding “senior new media” roles with the Republican National Committee.
In employing experimental methodology, the Obama tech team took a page from the playbook of two Yale University political science professors, Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber, who broke new ground introducing rigorous scientific research methodology into the study of what motivates voters, a central GOTV question.
In their path-finding book “Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout,” now in its second edition, Green and Gerber come to startling conclusions, including the admonition that telephone calling by phone banks has a minimal effect on motivating voters to vote, especially compared with in-person techniques that emphasize pounding the pavement with precinct workers assigned to knock on doors and interview voters.
The Obama campaign took Green and Gerber one step further, making sure its Internet messages were tailored to match voter interests using the same methodologies Green and Gerber have identified to ensure canvassing a precinct are armed with messages likely to be received favorably.
“Experts, be they consultants, seasoned campaigners or purveyors of GOTV technology, rarely measure effectiveness,” wrote Green and Gerber, communicating a message Messina and Plouffe took to heart.
That the Democratic Party is leaps and bounds ahead of the Republican Party in applying voter technologies is clear, in part by the reluctance of Republican-oriented consultants to go on the record.
Another group that refused to respond to WND requests for an interview was St. Paul, Minnesota-based FLS Connect, a firm contracted by the Romney campaign that advertises its expertise in “cutting edge technologies” applied to fundraising, voter and constituent contact, and data management tools.
Writing for RedState.com, Ben Howe lists FLS Connect as one of the consultants who “used the Romney campaign as a money making scheme, forcing employees to spin false data as truth in order to paint a rosy picture of a successful campaign as a form of job security.”
Tech editor Josh Peterson, writing for the Daily Caller, quoted Zac Moffatt, the Romney campaign’s digital director, as rejecting the notion that Republican-contract social media companies, including FLS Connect, should not be castigated with a broad brush as having run a “consultant con job.”
Peterson noted that Moffat resisted answering the question when the Daily Caller pressed to know what consultant firm was responsible for developing Project Orca.