by Matt Sarge
The Obama campaign had an advantage in 2008 and 2012 over its GOP opponents on account of its successful investment in its technology strategy. Its utilization of data allowed for innovative micro-targeting and GOTV (Get-Out-The-Vote) field efforts. Though this tech advantage may not have swung the election, as I’ve discussed in an earlier piece on OFA, it certainly helped pad Obama’s victory margin and set off louder alarm bells within the GOP.
In the wake of the 2012 election, Republican elites not only had to concern themselves with an impending demographic barrier to the party’s future national success, but also with a tactical campaign disadvantage as well as far as the GOP’s ability to leverage technology in its campaigns. Though this realization must also have occurred after the success of the Obama team in 2008, the GOP’s performance, and particularly the Romney campaign’s, were reflect a failure to narrow the technology gap. We’ll try to understand what happened.
Micro targeting: not all that new
Micro-targeting has been misunderstood by the media in recent years. While micro-targeting and ‘big data’ have attracted a lot of attention in the political world lately as being the ‘hot new thing,’ they are not actually new, but rather the further evolution of an age-old concept.
Voter targeting has long been central to campaigns. In the 19th century, targeting relied on the institutional knowledge of precinct captains and thereby strengthened the role of political parties, today’s targeting is much the same, only with smaller units of measurement. For much of our history, voter targeting was geographically based, initially at the precinct level with the eventual layering on of census demographic data to allow more precise targeting. While many demographic elements still remain central to voting behavior, ideology, and political motivations, voter’s views have become much more nuanced. Thankfully, our ability to understand these preference nuances and to look beyond basic demographic and geographical data to understand voters has markedly improved. We can now target individuals at a much more individual level. Sites like Votifi have taken to heart this new age of micro-targeting to understand that campaigns and companies can no longer cluster African-Americans living in DC together and assume similar preferences, nor can they assume that a group of people is either strictly liberal or conservative, but is instead likely to have variances issue to issue. Our historical ways of targeting groups are both no longer adequate as Americans’ preferences become less predictable on demographic or geographic bases, and no longer necessary given our enhanced ability to target at a deeper level.
Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab, provided some strong insights on the recent evolution of micro-targeting and the prospect for the GOP in 2016 in the area of campaign technology. In 2004, the Bush campaign had a big advantage on technology because of the Republican Party’s historical connection with the corporate world. While the level of targeting that Karl Rove and the Bush campaign utilized in that cycle were innovative in the political world, it was child’s play compared to the modeling and micro-targeting that insurance and financial firms had been using for years. These corporate connections to the GOP helped form the basis of their initial data advantage, but campaign technology has advanced to the point that OFA in 2012 was using more advanced targeting than most companies in the private sector, meaning that there is little room for advancement via these corporate avenues. However, Romney’s financial institution background may have been helpful in slightly closing the gap from 2008 to 2012, but not as much as was necessary or expected.
Romney’s Project ORCA, a voter-turnout system, failed on Election Day, further exacerbating the campaign’s technology disadvantage. While the Obama campaign had five years to build their campaign infrastructure and digital operation, the Romney campaign was forced to play catch-up, only beginning their efforts in earnest after the GOP primaries ended.
For both parties, the key to a successful digital operation will be to largely house it within the party infrastructure, rather than individual candidates’ campaigns. This will both allow these resources to be leveraged at the state and local levels and will allow for continuous building of a digital program and not simply piecing something together four months before Election Day.
Heading into 2016, the GOP has a talent problem. Largely, their talent problem is generational as the party has taken stances on issues like immigration, the environment, and gay marriage that are especially unpopular amongst young people. Without support from this generation, they have a decisive lack of support among those in the tech world who are essential to further campaign tech innovation.
Obama tech guru Harper Reed offered a different view in a talk at Tech Cocktail, citing the Obama team’s lack of diversity (Reed:“For the most part, we hired all white dudes”) and the GOP’s acquisition of former Facebook engineer Andy Barkett to serve as Chief Technology Officer as factors that will give Republicans a leg up in 2016. Barkett plans to address the talent gap by recruiting from Wall Street, as well as conservative-leaning organizations at Berkeley and Stanford near Silicon Valley.
Despite Reed’s comments, and the GOP’s signal of increased focus on technology in hiring Barkett, there still seem to be many factors working against them. In that vein, a major area of potential innovation in campaign micro-targeting is a connection with political science and academia. As we saw in some of the ‘experiments’ run by the Obama campaign, there is a lot of potential to fine-tune campaigns by quantifying what tactics actually work and how significant the effects are. However, liberals hold a major advantage amongst this demographic of academics. The GOP must make major inroads amongst these two groups that are likely drivers of campaign micro-targeting innovation if they are going to reverse the Democratic data and technology advantage in 2016.
The GOP has already made major strides since the 2012 election, with a focus on overhauling its data infrastructure. For example, Phil Musser and Alex Skatell of Media Group of America have developed a tool similar to OFA’s Narwhal that can cobble together different data sources about voters and preferences into a single platform. As RNC director Rience Priebus’s direction, they copied Obama’s move of opening a digital field office in San Francisco to capitalize on Silicon Valley technology talent. The RNC is building new technology tools to bridge the digital divide and is focusing on building up its social media presence to improve Republican appeal amongst those under 30.
The problem for the GOP is that their lagging digital operation in 2012 was a symptom of broader issues. While they stand to benefit from putting the same level of focus on micro-targeting and campaign technology that the Obama team did in 2008 and 2012, the fundamentals may still be lacking. As Obama digital strategist Joe Rospars notes, to build a robust internet presence, the GOP “would have to abandon opposition to issues with popular support” like background checks for guns and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants. And while a long-term social media strategy will benefit the party for the next cycle, it is unlikely to be decisive in turning young people into reliable Republicans. The major takeaway for both parties coming out of 2012 should be that you cannot afford to wait until the general election has begun to begin assembling a digital operation – it’s much too important and complex to be left to an afterthought.