A few days before Christmas, Engage DC, a well respected new media consulting firm, released ‘“Inside the Cave,” a detailed account of how the Obama campaign thoroughly dominated the GOP in the 2012 digital arena through superior management, innovative analytics, and the deployment of cutting edge technologies.
Three world class technologists headed up a team of 300 technology geeks working out of Obama for America headquarters in Chicago, where their laser like focus on digital communications, technology development and implementation, and analytics gave the Obama campaign an order of magnitude competitive advantage over an outmanned and outhustled Romney campaign. One of these three, Harper Reed, the former Chief Technology Officer for Threadless.com, and “king of the hipsters” with his stylized red hair, goatee, and earrings, led the technology division of 50 who created great tools that gave the Obama campaign a competitive advantage. “Inside the Cave” described the four new technology tools his group created:
• Narwhal: Synchronized data from multiple sources to build complete profiles of supporters
• Dashboard: Enabled supporters to connect with supporters near them and take action from home
• Call Tool: Allowed supporters in nonbattleground states to use their home phones to call voters in battleground states
• Stork: Transferred data from vendors to databases for querying
Another 50 technology geeks worked for analytics director Dan Wagner in a large open room in Obama for America’s Chicago headquarters (nicknamed “the cave”) where they “used Big Data to predict the individual behavior of tens of millions of American voters.” According to “Inside the Cave,” “Obama for America used analytics to improve every aspect of the campaign, with teams looking at battleground states, web, email, field and communications . . . Analytics was the breakout star of 2012. It saw a five time bump in staffing and resources over 2008.”
200 more technology geeks worked for digital director Teddy Goff, bringing the number of the Obama campaign’s 1,300 headquarters employees involved in data and technology operations to 300. The Romney campaign’s staffing in this area was anemic by comparison, with barely 100 working in digital and a mere four working in analytics.
The Romney campaign was highly centralized and heavily staffed with political operatives, while the Obama campaign was more decentralized and technologist driven. “Inside the Cave” found that “on Election Day, Obama for America had 4,000 employees – 2,700 of them field staffers. They managed over 8,000 neighborhood team leaders and 32,000 highly trained volunteers, known as core team members.”
Unlike the Romney campaign and the RNC, where technology decisions were in the hands of a small group of well connected political consultants, “Inside the Cave” shows that, “Obama for America didn’t hire your typical political staffer. They went directly to Silicon Valley and data analysts in the Fortune 500 and academia. One used to work at Pixar. Another was a high energy particle physicist.”
The Obama campaign opened up participation in innovative ways. In order to find key members of their technology team, the Obama campaign sent out recruiting emails to anyone on its donor lists who sounded like they worked for a technology firm. The email was highly successful, attracting top flight technologist Carol Davidsen, who would manage the highly successful Narwahl get-out-the-vote software.
The email said:
You’re one of very few people receiving this email because, based on what you’ve told the Obama organization in the past. 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.
It won’t pay very well. The hours are terrible …. Most people who come to work here will take a pay cut.
The Romney offering —ORCA–wasn’t even in the same league technologically as Narwahl, and it failed miserably on election day because no one at the Romney campaign thought to beta test it before the big day. “Inside the Cave” documented the superior “DevOps” methodology Reed and his team used to build Narwahl and the other Obama campaign technology tools, which were far superior to the old style approach the Romney campaign used with ORCA.
Narwahl development was characterized by “rapid iteration, minimal barriers between developers and operations staff, heavy use of cloud technology, and constant testing to handle outages and heavy loads.” In contrast, ORCA was a “traditional corporate IT project gone bad.” Remarkably, the development process included “no ‘game day’ style testing.” It was “launched on Election Day with no real user testing [and] could not add capacity.”
This isn’t surprising, because the ORCA project was managed by Dan Centinello, a 28-year-old college drop out who knew little about technology and had been given the job because he had been a loyal political operative in previous campaigns and was known to Rich Beeson, the political consultant and former partner at FLS Connect who served as the Romney campaign political director. ORCA was Beeson’s brain child, dreamed up, apparently in May, 2012, a mere five months before the election.
The report highlighted three areas of focus for the next Presidential campaign in 2016:
(1) Better Social Targeting: Phones are falling off “the cliff” first,m but door knocks, still the gold standard, don’t scale easily. Can personalized outreach from friends on Facebook become the next phone call or door knock? The technology has plenty of room to improve. For one thing, Obama for America didn’t necessarily use social data itself to enhance its voter file or determine whom to target. This will be standard by 2016.
(2) Real-Time Analytics Overtakes Polling: We have only just begun to understand what Big Data can do. The trend towards real-time analytics, and towards treating voters as individuals rather than as members of crude subgroups within a poll sample, will continue to evolve. We will also better be able to understand and model the relationship between online conversation and public opinion (which we can’t currently do very well). In four years, the media will stand up their own Analytics shops to better understand how voters are moving in real time.
(3) True Digital Integration: Practitioners on both sides agree that 2012 was a big step forward for integrating Digital with the rest of the campaign. Jeremy Bird notes that in eight years, “We will have difficulty telling a Field Director apart from a Digital Organizing Director. They are one and the same in future campaigns.” Indeed, as the backbone of the campaign itself moves online, separate Digital departments may fade away. The challenge will be to accomplish this transition while continuing to grow digital’s primacy within campaign organizations.
The bottom line of the “Inside the Cave” report is that, “forms of voter contact are starting to become obsolete.” Democrats are well poised to take advantage of these changes, while the GOP is so mired in usage of politically connected consulting firms it is unable to respond technologically or managerally to the new paradigm of voter behavior.
In addition, the Democrats have a strong bench of “engagement organizers” trained through two institutions that have been around for several years, the New Organizing Institute, which “trains thousands of progressive operatives on field organizing, new media, and data management [and] hosts national and state RootsCamp unconferences — this year the national RootsCamp was attended by over 2,000 people — more than half of them former Obama staff,” and the Analyst Institute “founded in 2007 it works with progressive organizations to conduct randomized experiments to determine the most effective methods to contact voters.”