“The Socially Awkward Do It Better”
Meet the hip geeks who outwitted Mitt Romney and the Republicans.
In theory, Republicans could have ripped this off. My colleague Sasha Issenberg has reported, all year, about the stat-geek techniques used by Democrats to tune up the standard tricks of get-out-the-vote campaigns and voter persuasion. Plenty of the RootsCampers I talked to had stories from losing campaigns, dating back to the Kerry 2004 debacle, when there was no real science about TV ads. The left had evolved faster than the right had evolved. Jeremy Bird, the national field director for OFA, told his Saturday audience of a plan that synched up perfectly with MoveOn and labor.
“As we got to the end, there were really only two things that mattered,” said Bird. “How many folks are registering to vote? Who are those people, and who’s turning out for the early vote? All the other stuff is inputs. Those were the two things that told us: Are we changing the electorate, and are our voters turning out?” The organizing was valued over the ads. Meanwhile, the Romney campaign and the Super PACs were blowing wads of cash on ads that washed right over people.
In the OFA session, Bird called on former volunteers—alternating the genders, boy-girl-boy-girl—to get fresh anecdotes on what worked and what would no longer work. One Iowa organizer revealed that phone calls had become nearly useless for reaching college students. Bird asked the crowd, all 20-somethings and 30-somethings, how many of them had landline phones. One woman raised her hand, in a crowd of a hundred people. The landline wasn’t coming back, either, said OFA’s Marlon Marshall, and that was going to be true “in eight years, when we turn Texas blue.”
Bird pointed out that the contact rate on all phones had fallen from 23 percent in 2008 to 16 percent in 2012. He derided the idea of “massive call centers” in central locations. I had a flashback to all the time I’d spent talking to Tea Party groups, proudly expanding their phone call outreach to voters.
Standing near me, reflecting on even weightier problems, was Republican consultant Patrick Ruffini. He was one of the GOP’s original digital gurus, building the 2004 Bush campaign’s hub before going private. He spent the RootsCamp weekend flitting from panel to panel, finding out how his movement had lost so badly. The Legend of Ruffini spread on Twitter. Some panelists redacted their remarks when he was in the room, just as they blacked out key data when reporters were taking notes. He recorded the sessions with tweets, pointing out all the tricks that worked. The tone of these tweets alternated between the respectful and the envious.
Universal takeaway: OFA state field staff are sharp.
As the conference ended:
Takeaway from #roots12: The socially awkward do it better.
Later, he saw a report from Boston. Strategists for the Obama and Romney campaigns were there for a quadrennial, back-slapping debriefing with reporters. They ate “chicken pot pie and mashed sweet potatoes” and said things like “we weren’t even running in the same race.” Ruffini had to rub it in:
They weren’t even at RootsCamp.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.