“The Socially Awkward Do It Better”
Meet the hip geeks who outwitted Mitt Romney and the Republicans.
Campaign staffers at Barack Obama's 2012 campaign headquarters in Chicago.
Photo by Frank Polich/Getty Images
Near the end of August, when it was stubbornly behind President Obama in the polls, Mitt Romney’s campaign released a TV ad about the “gutting” of welfare’s work requirements. The killer verb came from a Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial: “Welfare Reform GUTTED,” adapted and splayed across the screen in a font size usually reserved for stuff like “Nixon Resigns” or “Japan Surrenders.”
On Saturday, I sat in one of the Washington Convention Center’s dark and anonymous meeting rooms and learned just how badly that ad had failed. The lesson was part of RootsCamp, an annual post-election conference of Democratic/progressive campaigners put on by the New Organizing Institute. My teachers were media trackers from the Democratic National Committee, young quants who repeatedly, politely pleaded with reporters to keep quotes and hard numbers off the record.
They did share two maps. The first one showed the media markets where the “gutting” ad ran—Virginia and some spillover in Maryland and North Carolina, colored in faded purple to measure the impact. The second showed the states where media coverage informed voters that the ad was false. Purple-mountained majesty spread from coast to coast, with states far outside the Romney ad zone learning of, then loathing, the Romney message. Why didn’t anybody else get that at the time? The titles of the next slide answered my question.
We can get outspent and still win.
Media doesn’t understand how media works.
So, Democrats outsmarted the Romney campaign. The Republican had more money and won plenty of news cycles. (He outspent Obama in every swing state except Ohio.) Republican super PACs raised more than their Democratic counterparts. The GOP claimed to double or triple its “voter contacts” in key states. Democrats won anyway, because they’d figured out whom to spend money on, and how.
RootsCamp might be the first political conference I’ve been to where some people wore purely ironic buttons—Romney-Ryan swag, tributes to a forever-vanquished enemy. Most mega-meetings in downtown D.C. bring an alien-looking group of Americans dressed in comfy convention clothes or black suits. The RootsCamp’s crowd, 2,000 strong, looked like the casting pool for a party scene on Girls.
There was no glossy schedule. Activists learned of panels and breakout talks by checking a smartphone app or visiting The Wall, a monolith decorated with 8-by-11 titles and descriptions. Among them: “Inglorious Voters,” “#whitepeopleproblems,” and “Unfuck Fostercare.” On the third floor, any victorious activist still looking for a job could meet potential employers. On the first floor, he could meet with his peers from Obama for America or MoveOn and discover what cheap tricks had bested the rich guys.
On Friday, they packed the room for a panel titled “This Shit Actually Works,” where MoveOn revealed the results of a voter turnout experiment demo-ed in Delaware’s sleepy September primary. MoveOn wanted to test what sort of generic-looking mail was most effective for getting a possible voter off the couch—a “best practices” appeal to their civic duty or “social pressure” that compared a voter with his neighbors. Daniel Mintz showed the crowd an old attempt at social pressure, a list of neighbors and their scores that “looked like crap.” Then he revealed MoveOn’s “voter report card.” Featuring smiling stock-photo children, it revealed how often the target had voted and how often his neighbors had voted.
“Turnout for the control group was control 19.3 percent,” Mintz revealed. “Turnout for ‘best practices’ was 21.5 percent. Among people who got the ‘social pressure’ mail, turnout was 22.8 percent.” The point wasn’t really to convince new voters to choose Obama. It was to activate the soft voters who Democrats knew were out there.
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 email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.