|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.
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.
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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