Obama’s data advantage

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By: Lois Romano
June 9, 2012 07:01 AM EDT
CHICAGO — On   the sixth floor of a sleek office building here, more than 150 techies are   quietly peeling back the layers of your life. They know what you read and   where you shop, what kind of work you do and who you count as friends. They   also know who your mother voted for in the last election.The depth and   breadth of the Obama   campaign’s 2012 digital operation — from data mining to online organizing —   reaches so far beyond anything politics has ever seen, experts maintain, that   it could impact the outcome of a close presidential election. It makes the   president’s much-heralded 2008 social media juggernaut — which raised half   billion dollars and revolutionized politics — look like cavemen with stone   tablets.

Mitt Romney indeed   is ramping up his digital effort after a debilitating primary and, for sure,   the notion that Democrats have a monopoly on cutting edge technology no   longer holds water.

(Also on POLITICO: White House   tech gurus unveil digital road map)

But it’s also   not at all clear that Romney can come close to achieving the same level of   technological sophistication and reach as his opponent. (The campaign was   mercilessly ridiculed last month when it rolled out a new App misspelling America.)

“It’s all about   the data this year and Obama has that. When a race is as close as this one   promises to be, any small advantage could absolutely make the difference,”   says Andrew Rasiej, a technology strategist and publisher of TechPresident.   “More and more accurate data means more insight, more money, more message   distribution, and more votes.”

Adds Nicco   Mele, a Harvard professor and social media guru: “The fabric of our public   and political space is shifting. If the Obama campaign can combine its data   efforts with the way people now live their lives online, a new kind of   political engagement — and political persuasion — is possible.”

Launched two   weeks ago, Obama’s newest innovation is the much anticipated   “Dashboard,” a sophisticated and highly interactive platform that gives   supporters a blueprint for organizing, and communicating with each other and   the campaign.

(PHOTOS:   Technology and the Obama campaign)

In addition, by   harnessing the growing power of Facebook   and other online sources, the campaign is building what some see as an   unprecedented data base to develop highly specific profiles of potential   voters. This allows the campaign to tailor messages directly to them —   depending on factors such as socio-economic level, age and interests.

The data also   allows the campaign to micro-target a range of dollar solicitations online   depending on the recipient. In 2008, the campaign was the first to maximize   online giving — raising hundreds of millions of dollars from small donors.   This time, they are constantly experimenting and testing to expand the donor   base.

For   example, they have found $3 to be a magic number: Asking supporters for that   paltry donation to win a chance to attend a fundraiser with the president and   George Clooney or Sarah Jessica Parker, has generated tens of thousands of   responses — people from whom the campaign can collect highly valuable data   and then go back to.

“They are way   ahead of Romney micro-targeting and it’s a level of precision we haven’t seen   before,” says Darrell M. West, a leading scholar on technology innovation at   the Brookings Institution. “[The Obama campaign has] been able to work on it   under the radar during the Republican primary season.”

Obama already   this year has outspent Romney significantly (and outspent his own 2008   levels) for online advertising, according to several market analyses the   numbers. The hope for the Obama team, says West, “is that his online reach   will outweigh any Superpac funding advantage Romney might have for television   advertising, by reaching deep into communities with targeted online   advertising, grass-roots organizing and fundraising.”

The other hope,   of course, is that Obama can replicate some of the online excitement that   propelled him into office four years ago.

Romney campaign   officials acknowledge that they have had neither the time, nor the resources   to build a complex digital operation as they were fighting their way through   the prolonged primary season. “It wasn’t something we were going to put   resources into if he wasn’t the nominee,” said one adviser.

It is also   apparent that the Romney campaign will stick closely to the traditional   campaign model of heavy and expensive television spending — with the assist   of wealthy conservative super PACs that have signaled a willingness to spend   hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Obama.

While the   campaign is beginning to increase staff in preparation for the general election,   Romney digital director Zac Moffatt says they will do things differently than   the Obama operation. For one, Moffatt says the Romney campaign will outsource   much of their data management — instead of handling it in house, creating   “customized solutions” to fit their needs.

“As a campaign   we would not presume to know more than the collective intelligence and   resources of the marketplace,” said Moffatt, who adds that they will target   audience through “our partnership with an industry-leading data management   platform.”

“In the end,   what is most important is not how many people on any list or how many   followers we have — but their engagement level. And our followers are   engaged,” Moffitt said.

Harvard’s Mele,   who at age 25 helped pioneer the use of social media technology on Howard   Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, said that even with some obvious attrition   to Obama’s 2008 database, Romney is trailing.

“I’m   not going to say he can’t catch up because with enough money and intensity,   it may be doable — but it seems very unlikely to me,” said Mele. “(Obama)   used the powerful narrative of his 2008 campaign to build a digital   infrastructure that remains formidable, both in terms of data and sheer   know-how and expertise.”

The challenge   facing both campaigns in 2012 is the changing consumer — and the endless ways   they receive information. Four years ago, supporters might have been   satisfied with just “friending” a candidate on Facebook, but today most users   expect a more sophisticated way to actually engage –and on their terms.

While Obama   campaign officials guard details about its digital operation as fiercely as   Romney guards his tax returns, they were willing to share some advances since   2008:

• Created a   holistic, totally in-house digital operation that is the largest department   at campaign headquarters. In 2008, much of the social media and video was   generated organically from supporters. As one campaign official put it,   “digital is no longer a part of the campaign. It is the campaign.”

• Hired a   number of nonpolitical tech innovators, software engineers and statisticians.   “It has been incredibly freeing, because all election campaigns are a slave   to history, and the history here is just nonexistent,” says Obama campaign   manager Jim Messina. “So, we’ve been able to kind of reinvent it.”

• Invested   mightily in cutting-edge technology that scales the website to fit the screen   of any device. With nearly half of the U.S. population using smart phones,   “responsive design” allows a user to give money and volunteer without   bifocals. “More than 40 percent of all our donors are new, and a lot of them   are coming in because of things like this,” says Messina. “Call up our   website and try to donate on your phone and then do Romney’s. … Those things   are important, because people are busy and people want to help us and they   think about — ‘Oh, yeah, I saw the president on TV. I want to give them   money. How hard is it?’ ”

• Developed a   more complex symbiosis between the campaign and Facebook, which is 10 times   bigger than it was four years go, and has far more personal information   available to mine. “Facebook was just a site to see friends four year ago now   it is part of people’s DNA,” notes a senior campaign adviser. Obama invites   supporters to log on to the campaign through their Facebook accounts, which   gives the campaign one more avenue for data.

• Opened the   first all-volunteer. all-digital office in San Francisco where knowledgeable   techies drop in for a few hours and strive to develop new software for the   campaign under the supervision of paid staff.

• Staffed a   full-time digital director in each of about a dozen battleground states to   effectively run mini-general election campaigns in those states.

“Last   time, we had two campaigns,” Messina said. “We had the on-the-ground, door-knocking,   person-to-person campaign, and then we had the digital campaign. But most of   the digital campaign was really organized by [supporters] — by themselves.”

This time, says   Messina, it’s the campaign that’s driving and controlling most digital content.   “The goal is to burst through the wall of those two things.”

Twitter was   just gaining steam in 2008 when campaign used the platform largely to notify   followers about events. The campaign had 118, 000 followers at election time   and about 2.4 million Facebook followers.

Today, Obama   has 16 million Twitter followers to Romney’s 500,000, and Michelle Obama has   nearly 1 million to Ann Romney’s 45,000. On Facebook, Obama has nearly 27   million followers to Romney’s 1.8 million. (It’s hard to know how many of either   man’s followers are non-American.)

“We are   building content to a variety of different channels, because what has really   changed is the channels are different, and so some people are going to get   all of their stuff through Facebook, some people now do Twitter, some people   are going to go directly to our website, some people like it on email, some   people like it on text,” Messina said.

Less certain   for Obama is whether his vast digital empire can recreate the movement and   excitement of 2008. Messina makes it clear that some tried-and-true methods   still apply. “It’s even more important this time than last time to run a real   grass-roots campaign that’s built on turning out our voters, persuading   undecided voters and making sure they’ll vote on Election Day,” he says, “and   that is the kind of the organizing we’re doing.”

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