by Matt Sarge

The GOP is turning its strategy toward a year-round operation to engage broad swaths of the electorate. As argued in a previous post on the GOP’s digital disadvantage, successful campaign infrastructure can’t be built in the final months before a campaign, no matter how much money you’ve stockpiled. The GOP and Romney campaigns learned their lesson in 2012, trying to play catch-up with the Obama campaign’s finely tuned digital operation. This long-term approach to building a political base and campaign operation that can be utilized by whoever the party’s nominees are is the necessary approach if the Republicans want to be competitive in the next election cycle and beyond.

The GOP Micro-Targeting Lag

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.

Talent Problem?

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.

Swing State Series: Ohio

By Nick Davis

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It’s Election Day in America and arguably the most important state for either candidate’s campaign – Ohio - lies in the hands of the few undecided voters. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are making their final pushes all over the country, which undoubtedly includes the Buckeye State.  Obama holds a slight edge over Romney according to the latest RealClearPolitics poll of averages, leading by 2.9% of the vote. However, more recent polls including the final poll conducted by the Columbus Dispatch, indicate the race may be even closer with Obama just two points ahead and within the margin of error.

If you’ve been keeping up with the political commentary lately, it should come as no surprise that many pundits believe Ohio to be absolutely critical for both campaigns, especially Mitt Romney’s. No Republican has ever won the presidency without Ohio and it seems this election is no different. While there are other scenarios where Romney could conceivably win the White House, Ohio is important due to its large amount of electoral votes -eighteen.

In the last two elections, Ohio favored both parties choosing Obama in 2008 by a margin of 4.6% and 2.1% in favor of George Bush in 2004. Both candidates are hoping to ride the state’s prediction record and each is fighting to the very end. Each campaign brought in big name entertainers on the eve of the election.  Predictably, Bruce Springsteen was on tour with Obama like he has been for several weeks but he had an additional star at his side at the 11th hour, hip-hop mogul, Jay-Z. Romney was joined on his stop by the Marshall Tucker Band.

Mitt Romney has tried to make the election in Ohio a referendum on Obama’s economic record. He has promoted his own economic and tax policies while criticizing the 7% unemployment report for the state in the month of September. Obama had a broader platform in Ohio. He touted his plan for the economy while criticizing Romney for his stance on abortion rights and energy policy.

After last night, there’s nothing either candidate can do now but sit and wait as voters across the country head to the polling booth. We’ll know as soon as tonight whether Ohio will continue its streak of winners.

Here’s to the next four years.

Swing State Series: Florida

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By Nick Davis

With one day left in the election season in what has seemed like an eternity, voters in Florida are getting their last helpings of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. The Republican challenger is clinging to a one-point lead in the Sunshine State. Florida looks to be one of the absolutely critical states for both candidates due to its large amount of electoral votes, 29.

In the past, Florida has gone back and forth between both parties. In 2008, Obama won the state taking 51% of the vote while in 2004, George W. Bush won by a margin of 5% over his Democratic opponent, John Kerry.  Before Barack Obama, the last Democrat to win Florida was Clinton in 1996. Florida picks winners and that’s why each candidate isn’t taking the state lightly.

It’s likely that whoever wins Florida (and Ohio), will win the election, but don’t take my word for it, just look at numbers. In the last week alone, each candidate along with their running mates hasmade a combined 12 appearances. On top of that, the Wesleyan Media Project reported that a combined $133 million has been spent on just television advertising, breaking a Florida record.  

Another interesting, but relatively unknown fact about Florida that may explain it’s excellent presidential picks is Florida is the state where its demographics most closely resemble the nation’s as a whole. The proportion of young, old, white, black, Latino, men, and women are on par with the rest of the country according to University of South Florida political scientist, Susan MacManus.

 Not only do the candidates know the importance of Florida, the people do as well and they aren’t afraid to make a scene either. A recent Yahoo News article compiled letters from voters in Ohio and Florida, arguably the most important swing states, speaking to the political chaos and culture the state is embroiled in. One local university student attests to the overkill of political speeches, candidates, and media coverage surrounding his home. Another witnessed a band of older women shouting to anyone who would listen about the dangers of another Obama election win. There doesn’t seem to be a shortage of hostilities from either side.

While it seems like many people have made up their minds on who they are voting for, there is small chunk of independent voters in Florida who have yet to decide on a candidate. A recent poll of independent voters conducted by the Miami Herald/El Nuevo Herald/Tampa Bay Times indicated an advantage for Romney by a margin of 6 points. However, a more intriguing trend emerged among an unscientific email poll. Many who replied indicated that they were voting for their candidate in spite of the other, meaning that Florida voters may be unsatisfied with either candidate.

Given where the other states stand, it seems that Florida may be more important to Mitt Romney this campaign season than it is for Obama.  Florida is the only swing state among the top electoral vote holders, and of those, New York and California are sure bets for the Democrats. Together they combine for 84 votes, almost a third of the necessary 270. Anything can happen in the next 24 hours as evidenced by Superstorm Sandy and the ensuing chaos. Florida is surely going down to the wire.

Swing State Series: North Carolina

By Nick Davis


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Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are on a mad dash through the swing states these last days of the election although one state is being left off that list: North Carolina. Mitt Romney holds close to a four-point lead in a state that typically votes Republican, according to a recent RealClearPolitics poll of averages.

Obama’s schedule in these last few days is indicative of the states his campaign believes to be important. Among those include every swing state that I’ve already covered plus Florida and Ohio. So is North Carolina actually a swing state? Well yes, exactly a month ago today the poll of averages had Romney and Obama locked in a statistical tie. In fact, Obama snuck by in 2008 by a mere .3%, taking 15 electoral votes from a state that historically leans to the right. With so little time before Election Day, it seems obvious that the Obama campaign is reallocating sources from the Tar Heel State in an effort to hold on to his small leads in other swing states.  Actually, the incumbent hasn’t been back to the state since his party’s national convention in August.

Obama hasn’t completely given up in North Carolina. First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden have made last second attempts to court voters. Obama will be speaking in Charlotte today while Biden already visited Asheville and the Charlotte suburbs.

The President’s lack of campaign stops in the state couple with this new schedule development has the Romney camp celebrating a miniature victory.  “We will win on election day, big,” Beeson said in a teleconference. “That 100,000 vote gap will only continue to grow as we move into Election Day. So North Carolina continues to move further and further from them, as evidence by the fact that they have not had the President down there since they left the convention.”

Unemployment, like in many other states, is at the forefront of election issues in North Carolina. With a September jobs report of 9.7% unemployment in the state, it’s no secret that North Carolinians have suffered at the hands of the Great Recession.  Even though the jobs numbers improved in October, will it be enough to create an Obama comeback?  Look for the wives of the Democratic ticket to see these potentially improved numbers as a sign that their spouses are getting the job done.

Swing State Series: Virginia

By Nick Davis

Virginia may be one of the most interesting states to watch this election season. With less than a week before voting, Old Dominion is one of the few states truly up in the air.  A RealClearPolitics average of polls has Mitt Romney and Barack Obama locked in a statistical tie, each taking 48% of the vote. Even the weather has a hand in the state’s politics. Hurricane Sandy has ravaged the state causing both candidates to abandon the campaign trail in lieu of helping Virginians in need.

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Swing State Series: Wisconsin

By Nick Davis


With a week left in the presidential race, both campaigns are trying to make up for lost time in the Badger State as they vigorously attempt to turn the tide in favor of their nominee. With ten electoral votes at stake, Wisconsin could play a vital role in deciding the election. Many are saying that if Romney can’t take a win out of Ohio, he must win Wisconsin.

Neither candidate has been to the state lately, which is quite surprising given that the state is fiercely split down the middle. Mitt Romney hasn’t visited the state since he announced Paul Ryan as his running mate in August. Barack Obama hasn’t been a regular face either. He has only visited twice in recent months.

Wisconsin has consistently leaned democratic in the last couple of decades; the GOP hasn’t won here since 1984 when Reagan ran for reelection. However, with 7.3% unemployment, the people here are increasingly frustrated with the state of the economy and the Romney campaign is hoping to capitalize. The Republican ticket will be speaking Monday in West Allis and Janesville. The Democrats visited Oshkosh on Friday and the incumbent will also be visiting Green Bay on Tuesday.

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One can only wonder if Obama’s visit to the northern part of the state is a response to the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s endorsement of the Republican ticket or if it is a mere coincidence. Sunday’s editorial expressed dissatisfaction with Obama’s economic performance, especially when it’s compared to his campaign slogan of 2008, “Hope and Change.”

Obama will look to continue to ride the Governor Scott Walker recall wave. In June, the Republican governor survived a recall vote in which many people expressed outrage over his hard line stance in regards to budget cuts for state employees.  Walker beat back his critics, taking approximately 54% of the vote but the November election promises to be much closer for the incumbent involved. Obama has only a 2-point lead in the state according to a RealClearPolitics average of polls.

Predictions of who will win the state vary based on who you talk to what you read. Many believe that if Scott Walker can survive a hostile recall vote with a margin like he did, Romney can as well. On the other hand, Democratic hopefuls feel the President can continue the Democratic hold on the state, which has held strong since Reagan.

Wisconsin should be one of the more interesting swing states to keep our eyes on. It should be no surprise that Obama currently has the poll lead in a state that typically leans Democratic and yet Romney has earned endorsements within the state and has the local hero on his side in Paul Ryan.  Anything can happen and it’s only going to get closer as both campaigns ratchet up the pressure with only nine days to go.

Swing state series: Iowa

By Nick Davis

Iowa is no stranger to presidential politics as it proudly hosts the first in the nation caucuses and yet again, both campaigns are vigorously courting voters with two weeks left to go before the elections.

The most recent RealClearPolitics average of polls has Barack Obama leading by two percentage points, 49-47 with the more urban neighborhoods leaning democratic and the rural areas more conservative.  Similar to New Hampshire, which I wrote about in one of my earlier blogs, Iowa managed to avoid the economic crisis that has saddled this country. At the peak of the crisis, Iowa sat at 6.3% unemployment, well below the national average.   

Both candidates have made the state a priority in the weeks leading up to the election. Each has made appearances in the state and have more scheduled. Obama recently made a stop on the campus of Iowa State University as part of his college campus tour.  He hammered away at his support of Pell grants and other educational support and subsidies.  In addition to his campus stop, Obama also has plans to visit the state. He was scheduled to be in Davenport on Wednesday.

Mitt Romney has also made inroads in the state, speaking in Cedar Rapids today as well as in Ames this Friday in addition to his campaign stop at a family farm in Van Meter. His running mate, Paul Ryan, has also made stops, including Sunday when he spoke in Council Bluffs. Romney has made it his priority to discuss his 5-point plan to get the economy back to full speed. In Ames, his appeal to students will likely be that his economic plan will make it easier for college graduates to find employment. 

Early voting was a key factor in Obama’ 2008 victory. Talking Points Memo reports that among early voters in Iowa this year, ballots cast lean Obama by a margin of 2 to 1.

As a resident of Iowa and a student at Iowa State University, it’s very clear that Obama has the larger footprint in the state of late.  In Ames specifically, Obama has made more campaign stops (but not after Friday) in addition to appearances by celebrities like Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, and Justin Long.  

However, Romney isn’t shy about having his friends make the rounds for him in Iowa, either. His campaign will have several high profile politicians speaking to Iowans in the coming days, including Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal in Davenport, Chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Preibus, in Council Bluffs, Davenport, and Des Moines. The sitting governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, will also be stumping in Des Moines and Mason City.

Iowa has another ballot measure that has been getting a lot of press lately. There are strong efforts to remove and retain a justice on the Iowa Supreme Court, Justice David Wiggins. Advocates of removal state that Wiggins along with others on the bench overstepped their authority when they struck down a law that prevented people from marrying people of the same sex. The removal could very well happen. Three justices were removed at this time in 2010, the first time it has ever happened in Iowa.

Much like everyone else in the country, Iowans are looking forward to November 7th when all the political ads and phone calls will end. Iowa will play a major role in which direction the country will take as well as define how  perceived “judicial activism” is viewed around the country.

Swing state series: Nevada

By Nick Davis

With the election focusing on the economy and unemployment, Nevada may have the most at stake come November 6th. With the highest unemployment rate in the Union at 11.8%, the people of Nevada may set the tone for what is important around the country, unemployment or job creation.

Nevada has experienced the worst of the recession, largely based on the housing crisis where at its peak in 2010, unemployment reached 14%, last in the nation. As the housing bubble burst, it’s no surprise that the construction industry took the brunt of the bad economy. While steady gains in jobs over the first three quarters has eased the pain in 2012, the industry still lags in comparison to the same period a year ago.

On the flip side, Nevada has the greatest individual state unemployment decrease since The Great Recession began in 2008. From it’s peak at 14% in October of 2010, the state finds itself at a much improved and a 50 state best, 11.8% according to the latest jobs report.  Retail and government jobs have increased the most this past month with the upcoming holiday season and the recent start of the fall semester.

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Swing state series: New Hampshire

By Nicholas Davis

Welcome to the first edition of my swing state series where I will breakdown the key issues and events focusing on 9 crucial swing states. New Hampshire is first in line due to its least amount of electoral votes. We’ll continue on from smallest to largest electoral totals, finishing with Ohio, which many say is the most important considering it has voted for the winner in every election since 1960.

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