In the weeks following the 2012 elections, the post-mortems revealed how tech-savvy Obama’s re-election operation had been. The campaign built a revolutionary data-sharing platform and had more than 300 technologists and analysts on staff. In October of 2012, polls were showing a very close race, and the president’s approval rating hovered near 50 percent. So on election night, when battleground states began falling like dominoes into Obama’s column, and when Romney came up 126 electoral votes short, many people right of center were stunned.
Virginia’s gubernatorial elections just weeks ago offered the first test of whether the GOP had learned its lessons from 2012—and an honest assessment shows more work to be done. Democrat Terry McAuliffe scaled down Obama’s model, contracting with BlueLabs, an analytics and data company started by some of Obama for America’s senior analytics staff, and fundraising and get-out-the-vote firm NGP VAN to model and target Virginians. McAuliffe ultimately won by less than 2.5 percent.
Republicans need to do better.
For months, even years, before the 2012 elections, the Obama team had been focusing on winning. The campaign began hiring top technologists to build out “Narwhal,” the campaign’s integrated data platform. Tools built by the technology team, like Dashboard, which helped to organize and manage volunteers, were then integrated with Obama’s field team. The campaign hired training directors for each battleground state and began constantly drilling its staff on how to use the technology. High quality contacts and live conversations on targeted voters’ doorsteps were emphasized, and the technology made all that more efficient.
According to an internal Obama-Biden campaign memo, written before the last weekend of the campaign, the Obama team had already called or knocked on the doors of 125,646,479 people; that number does not include robo-calls, mail pieces, or literature drops. Then, in the last four days before November 6, the Obama campaign opened 5,117 Get Out The Vote (GOTV) staging locations in the battleground states, and had volunteers sign up for 698,799 work shifts. On Election Day alone, those volunteers made 11 million live calls and knocked on 7 million doors.
The goal was to transform a national campaign into one that revolved around only 10 vitally important states, and within them, one that played out ward by ward, precinct by precinct.
When Romney became the nominee in May of 2012, he was essentially given six months to catch up. The element of time cannot be discounted. On the other hand, Romney’s campaign did little to emphasize the ground game and live contact, and spent most of its money not on building technology infrastructure, but on digital ads. There were numerous reports that the Romney ground game was in shambles. To illustrate, the Romney campaign spent millions to create paper walk books for canvassers, following a pattern that could have been executed on a 1950’s IBM. The campaign made requests for data from the GOP, and sent it to consultants to create the walk books. But there were no best practices to map-making or optimized routing. Field staff would just use their individual best judgment.
Field staff were expected to get all of the returned walk-books scanned into the system every night before midnight, but often times the paper was wrinkled, wet, or harmed just enough so that the scanner would not accept it. Manual data entry was then required. Many times Romney staff stayed until 2 a.m. to input data, only to start over the next day.
And then there was “Orca,” named and built to defeat the vaunted Narwhal, but in implementation an unmitigated disaster. Orca was intended to be a digital strike list: Volunteers at the polls would enter names of voters as they came through, which would allow field staff to redirect resources toward people who had not yet cast ballots. But it quickly crashed, which left Romney volunteers scrambling for hours, trying to figure out what to do before resorting back to pen and paper. In short, the 2012 elections pitted, in many ways, a campaign governed by strategists stuck in the 1980s, with another campaign very firmly planted in the 21st century.
It does appear that this is changing. From all appearances, the RNC looks to be smartly accelerating its technology and data efforts. The hires of Andy Barkett, Henry Pfifferman, and Chuck DeFeo are a strong signal that the GOP is serious about making up lost ground. And on the outside, firms like Voter Gravity, of which I am CEO, are pushing the bounds of technology on the right.
Some no doubt think that 2014, with the disaster of Obamacare still looming, will be a good year for Republicans no matter what. That ultimately might be true. But either way, we’d better make sure that we’re ready.