2012 Election: Yes I Love Technology, but Not As Much As Votes

Nathanael Yellis By Nathanael Yellis • Last Updated April 2, 2019

Technology's Role

Jim Collins, in Good to Great, said companies use technology well when they use it to solely accelerate their momentum. Only when it makes what is already happening better can technology help make a good company great.

Technology is an accelerant.


If you missed the blogosphere's fallout over Orca:

The oft-repeated statement that Romney for President Inc.'s Orca application doomed his campaign is wrong.

Romney's campaign had technological blunders, described endlessly in whiny conservative blogs, and breathlessly in liberal ones. But the Orca failure didn't cause him to come 350,000 votes short.

What Really Wins Elections

This attitude about technology evidenced a one key failure:

As Romney's Communications Director Gail Gitcho put it in the PBS piece, "The Obama campaign likes to brag about their ground operation, but it's nothing compared to this."

The quote is in reference to Orca, but the assumption is that a technology can outweigh a well-organized canvassing and turnout machine.

Reality Check

You win an elections when more people vote for you. You need to convince the winnable people and ensure the people whose support you've won cast their vote. People are convinced by personal interaction, especially with people they know outside of politics.

If it takes convincing and turning out voters to win elections, why would Romney's campaign leave the ground game to state Republican Parties?

"The Romney campaign doesn't do the ground game," Rick Wiley, the RNC's political director, told me. "They have essentially ceded that responsibility to the RNC. They understand this is our role."

The Republican tradition has national campaigns leaving the hard work of campaigning to others.

Meanwhile, it the Obama campaign elevated it to a national priority. The local campaign offices were staffed by paid personnel and recruited volunteers across the country. Their key insight is that community organizing takes time, money, and relentless focus:

"Our focus is on having a very decentralized, organized operation as close to the precinct level as possible," [Field Director Jeremy] Bird said. In addition to all those offices, the campaign operates out of dozens of "staging locations," many of them the living rooms of neighborhood leaders who have been working with their volunteer teams for a year or more, fanning out into the communities they know firsthand. 
"Community organizing is not a turnkey operation," Bird says. "You can't throw up some phone banks in late summer and call that organizing. These are teams that know their turfs -- the barber shops, the beauty salons; we've got congregation captains in churches. These people know their communities. It's real, deep community organizing in a way we didn't have time to do in 2008."

The resulting numbers reflect strategic focus:

The Obama campaign's technology enabled volunteers to do their local organizing more effectively, and the national effort to back up the ground game with TV ads and everything else.

How Technology Can Drive the Ground Game


Harper Reed, Obama's CTO, thought their architecture should be like this:

It needed to handle the needs of volunteers in the field and in the campaign's "Team Digital" (responsible for the campaign's Web presence, social, and other digital media presence), while also feeding the "big data" machine of Team Data (the campaign's analytics department).

Everything is terms of what the core functional teams need. Serving internal customers is a strong sign technology is in the right place: accelerating the organization's momentum.

Despite the strong team building really great applications, they never let building cool things distract from the mission:

The Narwhal API could have easily been used to drive computerized "robocalls" to voters, but the philosophy of applications like Dashboard and Call Tool was that "you can't just make a difference through tech alone," Ecker said. "You can't just send e-mails and make robocalls and do stuff on Facebook—the real persuasion is going to happen when a real person is talking to a real person."

Real persuasion. Real people talking to each other. (Incidentally, that's the opposite of Orca's 800 people the Boston Garden calling voters.)

People Make Technology

The Obama campaign noticeably in-sourced their technology, while the Romney campaign relied on various vendors. Only one set of people want everything to be integrated in service of the ultimate goal: the campaign itself. The Atlantic piece above outlines just how strong that effort can be: the Obama campaign built its own apps for everything from processing donations to testing and delivering emails to buying TV time.

That incredibly product suite only exists because they first invested in the right technologists.

It's easy to point to anything the Romney campaign did and say it was why they lost. Some of the finger-pointing is probably right: certainly no national campaign will launch an online program without stress-testing it again. But most of the analysis is poor: Romney didn't buy my thing or please me, therefore the campaign was doomed.
One thought stood out, from Patrick Ruffini:



Lessons Learned

If Republicans want to use technology well, they'll invest in talent.

If they want to win elections, they'll take persuasion and GOTV much more seriously.

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