When nominee Obama found himself in a similar position four years ago, his campaign decided to upend the standard structure campaigns used to interact with data. Obama had begun 2007 relying exclusively on an outside consultant, Ken Strasma, to develop his statistical models. But as the general election arrived, the campaign’s ambition for using data exceeded the reach of Strasma’s small firm. Expertise was no longer so centralized: by the end of the primaries dozens of employees had worked directly with Strasma’s microtargeting scores to build targeting universes and organizing maps, often improvising to solve local problems. That June, campaign manager David Plouffe approved a proposal to augment Strasma’s work by having staffers direct regional data and targeting desks at Obama headquarters. In Chicago, targeting and analytics would be treated as a core internal campaign function, like press relations or constituency outreach.
John McCain stuck to the old model, hiring outside consultants (largely through the Republican National Committee) who struggled throughout the summer to get the attention of campaign leadership. Those targeters had to wait until August to begin to building their state-specific statistical models that generate probability scores for individual voters. In nearly all of those states, McCain’s campaign never updated those scores, even as the dynamics of the race changed through such heady disruptions as Sarah Palin’s nomination and the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
While McCain’s campaign treated microtargeting as a one-time process, Obama made it nearly continuous. Targeting-desk staffers processed the results of hundreds of thousands of weekly voter interviews placed by Obama’s call centers. Starting that summer, they remodeled the electorate in every battleground state each weekend, so that when Palin arrived on the scene or the global-financial system collapsed field staff could see the events’ impact on the projected behaviors and beliefs of every voter nationwide.
That remains the blueprint for Obama’s 2012 data structure, with dozens of analysts spread among departments in Chicago—some assigned to specific regions and states and others available to work on special projects, such as the text-analytics initiative called Dreamcatcher—and no dominant outside analyst like Strasma under contract. Innovation to improve their strategy and tactics, Obama campaign officials have gambled, should come from within.
Even as Romney now reaches fundraising parity with Obama, his campaign isn’t aiming to duplicate Chicago’s analytics structure. A reliance on staff talent, Romney’s advisers caution, could potentially prevent a campaign from benefitting from ingenuity elsewhere. “The other side has certainly invested a lot of money,” says Meyers, “but they’ve been operating outside the market for two years.” Meyers’s TargetPoint, which works for a variety of campaigns and independent groups, including the pro-Romney super PACs Restore Our Future and American Crossroads, will handle the majority of states for Romney. The remainder have been assigned to Grassroots Targeting, its leading competitor among Republican data consultants.
Already Romney is moving more quickly than McCain’s did four years ago. His campaign began assigning its scores this June, and engineered systems so that new information from Republican field canvasses and phone banks can help to refine the statistical models on an ongoing basis. “It’s getting a lot faster and a lot more dynamic,” says Alex Lundry, a veteran of the McCain effort and perhaps the most methodologically sophisticated opinion researcher working in Republican politics.
Lundry recently moved to Boston to work for Romney full time, charged with leading a data-science team within the campaign’s strategy department. No longer competing in a few states at a time, strategists now need to make continuous determinations about how to move resources across a national map, and balance different tactical needs in each state. Lundry has been paired with Brent McGoldrick, who oversaw George W. Bush’s 2004 West Virginia operations but eventually left campaigns to join Financial Dynamics, a consultancy that works with clients in the health care, energy, and financial-services sectors to segment consumers by their attitudes and behaviors, and adjust corporate advertising strategies to better reach them. “Lots of us, including myself, have always done politics,” says Blaise Hazelwood, who launched Grassroots Targeting with McGoldrick in 2005. “He has had the time to experiment with all this. In politics you don’t typically have that type of opportunity—or not with the time or budget to do it.”
Romney’s digital department has gone on a summertime personnel spree, hiring former employees of Apple, Google Analytics, Ominture, and—in the case of the new manager of Romney’s online store—Overstock.com. (A cluster of newly hired engineers have been permanently situated in Utah, partially to exploit the time difference when working on overnight projects.) But the bulk of the online analytics come from commercially available services marketed by outside firms. Web ads are largely directed through segments packaged by the company Lotame based its own online-behavioral models. Other vendors have been enlisted for their boutique products, as ClickZ has reported: Pulpo for profiles of Hispanic sub-segments online, and Say Media for online video targeted at voters who do not watch much television and are hard to reach through traditional ads. "I don't think we thought, relative to the marketplace, we could be the best at data in-house all the time,” says Moffatt. “Our idea is to find the best firms to work with us."
It is a sentiment that aligns with the candidate’s own private-sector triumphalism, but more importantly reflects the Romney campaign’s acceptance of the David and Goliath dynamic between Boston and Chicago where analytics are concerned. Romney aides scoff at the glowing pieces written about Obama’s data-driven methods, but their obsession with reverse-engineering his analytics is its own concession. It is the statistician’s version of trailing a motorcade in a honking bus to find out where the president is headed, in the hopes of later divining why. “It’s one thing to know ours,” says Centinello, “but it’s even better to know what his strategy is.”