Once a week, members of Mitt Romney’s political department gather in the campaign’s Boston headquarters and pretend that they are in Barack Obama’s war room. Such play-acting has been crucial to Romney’s tactics since he secured the Republican nomination this spring. Shortly after preparing their own vote goals—the state- and county-level accounting of registration, persuasion, and turnout targets that offer the basic strategic foundation of every campaign—Romney’s team drew up a set imagining what Obama’s internal projections would be. In their weekly meetings, they review Obama’s travels to identify the areas they think their rivals in Chicago are making a priority.
At the same time, a new data-science team within Romney’s strategy department sifts through reports on Obama’s broadcast buys as assembled by the Campaign Media Advertising Group. Romney staff code each of Obama’s ads according to their distinctive characteristics: content, style, the candidate attributes and characteristics they’re trying to drive—even the gender of the narrator and at what point the legally mandated “I approve this message” tag is inserted—along with the perceived demographic audience and the markets in which it appeared.
“We watch where the president goes,” says Dan Centinello, a Romney deputy political director who oversees the weekly meetings. “We’re trying to piece together what we think are his top ranks.”
That is easy enough, but Obama has not been traveling as a candidate for very long, so Centinello’s team doesn’t yet feel comfortable that they know how to interpret the logic of their opponent’s itinerary. Did Obama’s recent Ohio bus tour stop in Sandusky because his analysts detected a large pocket of Romney-leaning voters they thought they could win over? Or because they thought an Obama visit was necessary to jolt their own supporters’ enthusiasm levels? Or did Obama go to Sandusky because advisers wanted to draw a crowd to aid local efforts to register new voters or enlist volunteers?
In the primaries, Romney’s advisers had little confidence that there was much logic at all behind his rivals’ moves, and the two-time candidate outmaneuvered analytically amateurish opponents with well-plotted discipline and attention to detail. Now forced to play catch-up against a savvy incumbent, Romney’s team acknowledges they are not aiming to match what Obama has built in Chicago: A unique, in-house analytical empire that has developed an unrivaled capacity to churn through voter data and translate insights into tactics. Because of this capacity, Romney advisers assume that what they see the president doing in public must have a good deal of sense behind it. "The Obama team had the luxury of knowing exactly what they'd be doing on July 1, 2012 because they've been planning for six years—definitely three-and-a-half years,” says Zac Moffatt, Romney’s digital director. So instead of devoting their analytical energies to out-strategizing the president, Romney’s advisers are trying to hack Obama’s code and turn it against him.
As the dataset of Obama activity expands over the course of the campaign, the burden of finding those patterns will shift from the eyes of advisers huddled in weekly meetings to the statistical models they’ve written. Algorithms will test the association between vote goals and the candidates’ travel and ad placement, staring through Obama’s visible tactics to reveal a latent strategy beneath.
Those calculations, along with other data from internal polls and the campaign’s interactions with voters through field activity and phone contacts, feed into nightly simulations of local and state dynamics that spiral up all the way to electoral-college projections. Only then do Romney’s aides believe they will know enough about how their dollars ought to be spent, and where their candidate ought to go.
Throughout the primaries, competing as a well-known front-runner within a relatively small universe of potential voters, Mitt Romney gave his targeters one central task: identify his supporters so they could be mobilized to turn out. Romney demonstrated analytical acumen on the path to the nomination— his campaign’s ability to count votes in Iowa and savvy handling of the early-vote process in later states were both essential to his win—but he developed little institutional expertise along the way. Romney relied exclusively on his party’s leading data firm, TargetPoint Consulting, to build the microtargeting models that undergirded those tactics and to advise him on assembling the universes of individual voters to be contacted by mail or phone. When Obama clinched the 2008 nomination he had more than 10 times the 89 paid staff on Romney’s lean team when he extinguished Rick Santorum’s challenge this spring.
The turn toward a general election has expanded the Romney campaign’s analytical needs, while also refocusing them. The political department has instructed its field staff to be more aggressive in collecting information on people who attend Romney rallies so that targeters can build models to predict not only how a person will vote, but their likelihood of attending campaign events or agreeing to volunteer. While the political department is developing a plan to use those volunteers for get-out-the-vote activities this fall, the campaign’s targeters are more concerned with finding minds to change: those already likely to vote but still not sold on Romney. “The challenge is finding that share of persuadables that are out there,” says TargetPoint president Michael Meyers. “How do I find them and what do you talk to them about?”