The following post appeared on the Red Mass Group blog and posted by “edfactor,” and posted under a Creative Commons CC-BY license as noted below. Please spread far and wide in the hopes of someone in charge actually doing something about it.
This post is about technology, but is written for a non-technical audience.
You may think you know what happened with the technology of the Obama and Romney campaigns because of what you read about Orca. You don’t know. This article is incredibly long. It will be worth it, and you will never look at technology and politics in the same way. If someone knows where to post or put this so that the RNC sees it, please do so. I am designating this content under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. Distribute freely with attribution.
“We must develop the best technology with the help of the best minds.” – GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, in a speech in January 2013, after being re-elected.
Yes, Mr. Priebus, we must, because in 2012, Team Obama kicked our asses in ways that you don’t understand. The Democrats have created a whole ecosystem of technology and people that we don’t have. It will be nearly impossible to catch up. This article will explain why, and offer some advice. But you’re going to have to be bold. Or we are going to lose in 2016.
- This article will attempt to answer the following questions:
- What role did technology play in the 2012 presidential election?
- How did Obama and Romney spend their money?
- What were the differences in their approaches?
- How did their spending and approaches affect what they were able to do?
- How far ahead are the Democrats in technology?
- Will this technology trickle down?
- What are the big lessons?
- Can Republicans catch up?
BACKGROUND AND SOURCE MATERIAL
This article is based on many public sources and several private ones with strong connections to the people who have built campaign technology for President Obama over the past several years. Fortunately, most of the useful information is public, thanks to Engage, TechPresident and Ars Technica. Links to all their great work is at the bottom of this article. (I don’t know a single technology person in the Romney campaign and they have revealed little about their operations. But I can tell much of what happened by the public information and the spending reports. I also, as a Romney supporter, used a lot of their public-facing tools.)
INTRODUCTION: BACK TO 2008
I remember the 2008 campaign between then-Senators Obama and John McCain. In my professional world, we were all buzzing about what technologies would be used, as this appeared to be the first big election where Internet technology would finally play a major role. I had a few friends who were working (though Blue State Digital) for Senator Obama. I knew no one who worked for Senator McCain.
At the time, web technology was aimed at making a better website, offer some organizing tools, do some analytics, and spreading the word though email and social media channels. There was talk about radical changes to GOTV, but that was a ways off. It was still the “digital” side of the campaign, and new technology didn’t flow through the entire campaign operation at that time.
The first thing I noticed was a difference in technology and resources. First, the McCain campaign only had a small number of people on the digital side (perhaps a dozen). The Obama campaign had many more people involved (close to 100). That’s the part people remember. But there was another thing that only we technology folks would notice: different kinds of software. McCain’s main website and tools were built on a kind of Microsoft technology that you would see from a medium-sized bank. Obama’s tools were simple but flexible “open source” components that were part of a worldwide network of interesting and innovative products.
After the 2008 election, Republicans saw that they were quite behind the Democrats in social media and a few other areas. They decided that we would have to do better next time. But four years later, we found that we were even further behind. That’s right, a brilliant graduate of Harvard Business School with a billion dollars ended up further behind his opponent, who spent less than half the amount of money he did, but fielded an operation four times as large.
So how the hell did this happen? You’re going to find out.
DIGRESSION: OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE
There is one big, new tech concept that you must understand that is at the very heart of the Internet software development world. Almost all of the basic components that startups use are free. Yes, after decades of dominance by IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and many others, we are now in a world where free, community-based software is were all the innovation and action is at. I’m serious. For example: almost all of the software components that power Facebook worldwide is free. That doesn’t mean you will know how to use it. The metaphor is this: I can walk you in the front door of Home Depot and say, “Take anything you want. You can build a beautiful mansion with what’s in here.” Could you build a mansion? Probably not. But the materials won’t cost you a thing. That’s what Internet software is like now. Most of the best stuff costs nothing. You just have to know how to use it. Unfortunately, almost all of the best people who can build those mansions of software are not Republicans. And that’s a huge problem. (More on that later.)
WHAT ROLE DID TECH PLAY?
Most people think of technology as a website. Perhaps a collaboration platform, like some offices use to post events and share documents. But that is not accurate anymore. I coined the following phrase months ago:
“We are living in an information technology revolution and politics is the ultimate information war.”
This time, in 2012, Team Obama took technology to everything it did: communication, door-knocking, organizing, voter targeting and preferences, polling, advertising, fundraising, and a whole new level of GOTV. There would be a giant backbone of voter data that would flow through every activity and it would be so knowledgable and so good at predicting what to do, that the wisdom of political consultants would be irrelevant. Here’s a great quote from someone at TechPresident who interviewed the staff:
“The core of the campaign was not flashy or even particularly innovative except in the willingness of senior staff to listen to numbers people rather than to consultants acting on old-fashioned political intuition.”
That’s right: this time, it would be hard numbers, not political strategists, that would dictate everything they would do. Republicans heard about this approach months ahead of time and laughed at it. WSJ Columnist and former Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan was one of the ones who didn’t get it until after the election, and then wrote, regretfully:
“I referred to a recent hiring notice from the Obama 2012 campaign. It read like politics as done by Martians:
The ‘Analytics Department’ is looking for ‘predictive Modeling/Data Mining’ specialists to join the campaign’s ‘multi-disciplinary team of statisticians,’ which will use ‘predictive modeling’ to anticipate the behavior of the electorate. ‘We will analyze millions of interactions a day, learning from terabytes of historical data, running thousands of experiments, to inform campaign strategy and critical decisions.’
This struck me as “high tech and bloodless.” I didn’t quite say it, but it all struck me as inhuman, unlike any politics I’d ever seen.It was unlike any politics I’d ever seen. And it won the 2012 campaign. Those “Martians” were reinventing how national campaigns are done. They didn’t just write a new political chapter with their Internet outreach, vote-tracking data-mining and voter engagement, especially in the battleground states. They wrote a whole new book. And it was a masterpiece. ” 
(But when I saw that hiring notice, I said, “Oh my God – are they really going to apply that stuff to campaigns now?” My mind swirled.)
Here’s another great quote from that TechPresident article:
“This campaign had enough data to be able to make differentiated strategy decisions at small geographic levels,” one campaign staffer told techPresident. “The unsung heroes were all the team leaders and volunteers who were entering data nightly, and then strategizing with the data coming back from HQ.” 
One more item for all those people who keep talking about the value of door-knocking over technology: the Obama and Romney people built technology so that the door-knockers would have info on their phones right before they knocked, and the ability to add data from the door visit into the system in front of that house. Quote from Obama campaign manager Jim Messina: “I mean, the best data for us was things that we collected at the doors.”
Oh – and social media…. if you think Facebook is just about sharing, you won’t believe the things the Obama people figured out how to do. Let’s start with just sharing. They didn’t just figure out who to share stuff with, as both campaigns knew how to do. They were looking at your friends, too, which matters as they figured out that 98% of all Facebook users know someone who likes President Obama.
“The prototype used a script to check a given supporter’s Facebook friends list against what the campaign knew about those friends. The campaign could use the merged data to create arbitrary scores that indicated which of a user’s Facebook friends the campaign would like to present with a given piece of content.” 
It gets more advanced than that:
“Applying the same principles to get out the vote, Obama for America asked its supporters who had been signed up for the OfA Facebook application to pick potential voters from among their friends in swing states and urge them to get to the ballot box or register to vote. In the final days before the election and on election day, the application flooded its users with notifications asking them to reach out on the campaign’s behalf. Officials told Time’s Michael Scherer that a staggering 20 percent of people asked by their friends to register, vote or take another activity went ahead and did it.” 
For the youth vote, they realized that 85% of all young voters were friends with someone already in their Facebook database. All they had to do was use their data to figure out which friends of friends were in which states, and then use targeted sharing to get content to them.
We don’t have the numbers, but I have heard that thousands of people were gotten to the polls in this way in swing states. When you look at the margin of victory, you being to say, “Whoa….did Facebook technology hand any of the states to Obama?” I don’t know.
I could go on and on, but I hope you see that this was a level of technology that campaigns had never seen before. (And I didn’t even get to their amazing email and fundraising stuff. For example, while Romney had 2-3 million people on their email list, Obama had 16 million. And what percentage of Obama’s 16 million got to the polls to vote? 99% !!! So for those of you who think direct mail is irreplaceable, think again.)
HOW DID OBAMA AND ROMNEY SPEND THEIR MONEY?
As the old saying goes, if you watch how people spend their money, you see their priorities.
Ars Technica did a complete breakdown of the spending of both campaigns. (See links 5+6 below) But I will try to sum up the data. Note that it isn’t easy to clearly say what is and is not technology, but the exact numbers are not important in this analysis.
Romney: $23.6 million (at least – not counting some data management stuff that was expensive.)
They spent money to have other people build and handle stuff, keeping only a few things and a few employees in-house. Everything was software as a service. According to reports, he paid his tech people a lot less than Obama did. 
Obama: $11.3 million
Obama spent $9.3 million on technology and services. $2 million on internal tech payroll – this is a major and crucial difference from Romney. They paid their people more, though most took a pay cut from their regular software jobs to join the campaign. Obama spent $1.4 million on hosting they managed themselves (Amazon Web Services) – compared to Romney’s $21,000. (But Romney probably paid MindShift – a BestBuy company, several hundred thousand dollars for them to host stuff for them.) 
WHAT WERE OTHER DIFFERENCES IN THEIR APPROACHES?
Well, for one, Obama’s people decided to hire a fantastic CEO from a startup named Threadless to be their Chief Technology Officer. Harper Reed is one weird, but super-smart guy. Here is his picture: (this is one of the less-scary ones of him)
Can you picture the Romney people hiring someone like him to manage their technology? I didn’t think so.
Other than Reed, the biggest difference was that Romney outsourced his problems for other firms to handle. Obama hired people to build solutions internally. But there were many others. Romney hired firms run by people he had previous ties with. As Ars Technica put it, he hired his friends.  When it came to in-house technologists, Obama hired senior people and paid them more. Romney hired more junior people and paid them less.
Obama’s in-house organization was huge! He had 200 digital people – website people, social media, etc. He had 50 more developers and 50 more analytics people. This crew made up about 1/3 of all Obama campaign staff! Romney had a small fraction of that.
Obama’s people used open source tools and proven designs. “Key in maximizing the value of the Obama campaign’s IT spending was its use of open source tools and open architectures. Linux-particularly Ubuntu-was used as the server operating system of choice.” 
Obama’s team changed technologies a lot; they customized; they innovated. They did a lot with cloud computing, while Romney’s people used more traditional hosting in Boston and Waltham.
Obama’s team did practice drills for major IT meltdowns so they would be prepared. They had a complete copy of their entire infrastructure moved to the West Coast when Hurricane Sandy hit. (This is an incredible feat.)
Obama set up a field office in SF for tech help got 100 volunteers and many did serious work and built real applications.
Obama’s team opened up to outside people and the press about what it was doing, both before, and especially after the election.
Obama’s people, before they started the campaign tech effort, toured Silicon Valley startups to find out best practices for the things they knew they needed to do. They wanted to be innovative, but they didn’t want to do something that was not already working elsewhere.
Obama’s people decided that instead of trying to combine third-party software services that were not designed to work together, that they would build their own giant data integration tool that would combine everything every part of the campaign knew about every voter, donor, and volunteer into one giant system that all applications could tie into. There is no way to overstate how powerful this was. Every email, every phone call, every web advertisement, every website visit, every Facebook connection, and every door knocker would know everything about everyone and could do individual personalization on the spot. This was what “Project Narwhal” was. It is the holy grail of all political activity. It improved efficiency across the entire country and it probably, over time, won the election for Obama. I don’t say that carelessly. (Now you understand what 50 analytics guys can do full-time when they have every piece of data about everybody in America, eh?)
HOW DID SPENDING AND APPROACH AFFECT EXECUTION?
Obama’s people, who were from the internet startup world, hired heavily from their social networks and brought in people from America’s most innovative firms. They brought those ideas and hard-won experience into the campaign. They didn’t need to be taught how to create architecture for rapid growth. They knew already.
In terms of reliability, Obama’s infrastructure suffered 30 minutes of downtime for the entire campaign. And zero on election day. Romney’s people had some outages, and terrible problems on Election Day with GOTV.
By building a unified set of data services, Obama’s people were able to constantly and easily add new things to the campaign without worrying about the data layer as Romney’s people did. Every new application therefore took much less time than it did for Romney.
Obama’s people focused on using simple components that were easy to understand. This, along with their data services, allowed them to create the San Francisco field office and get people contributing and writing real applications to help the campaign. There was no way Romney could have easily added outside help, even if they wanted to.
HOW FAR AHEAD ARE THE DEMOCRATS IN TECHNOLOGY?
If we are talking about the tech of the parties in general, that’s hard to say. My guess is that the Democratic Party is, in general, a couple of years ahead, based on things I have read. However, in terms of judging the campaign technology of Romney and Obama, I think that the Obama people are at least three years ahead. Probably four.
But talking about the number of years doesn’t tell the whole story. The Democrats already have an entire ecosystem of political technology going on. It’s everything from all of Blue State Digital’s stuff to NGP VAN to ActBlue to a lot more. Some of the stuff they have built, such as NationBuilder, is available to all. Most is not.
They have an ethos of using technology to enable individual people to stand up to big corporations and the wealthy. It motivates them to keep moving forward and building new things.
The other big issue is people. Most of the best technology people in America are either Democrats or non-Republicans. The numbers are startling. Nate Silver covered this issue in an article named, “In Silicon Valley, Technology Talent Gap Threatens GOP Campaigns.”  The donation chart below tells the story:
But I knew this without even seeing those numbers. Not all my friends in the tech elite are Democrats. But almost none are Republicans. In this state, I know of only one other top technology guy who is Republican – even though I am sure there are some more. (There are all kinds of ordinary programmers of all political parties. But those people are not going to build Narwhal.)
The reality is that even though the great software developers of America care about the economy and freedom and innovation and don’t like a lot of government regulation, the GOP brand is just too toxic. I try to talk them out of their impressions. But they just say, “Ed, they are not like you.” (They being the people on TV and in the news.) Also, the high-tech world is a diverse and tolerant culture. Diversity and tolerance are not what we Republicans are known for. If we want to reach out to the technology innovators, we are going to have to change our image and also address some of their policy concerns. (More below on that.)
WILL OBAMA’S TECHNOLOGY TRICKLE DOWN?
That’s the big question. Much has been written about whether Obama’s campaign will give all they built to the open source community, where they got so many of the components they used to begin with.
The answer right now seems to be no. However, through their social networks, the ideas and architecture are already spreading. Also, they claimed they used components already in use at the well-known startups, and we (computer geeks) already know what those shops are using. (Take Narwhal for instance. I think I have some idea what it would look like. But no, I cannot go build that for you.)
I imagine that some of these techniques and tools will be shared with the major Democratic players (ActBlue and Blue State Digital) and also that the successor organization to OFA will get some components as well. I don’t think state parties will get anything directly, but they may get some of this functionality through the big vendors’ state-level products. For instance, Obama’s team did a lot with fundraising (though I didn’t talk about it) and I wouldn’t be surprised if that got transferred to ActBlue, and the Massachusetts Democrats, who don’t use ActBlue now for local races, can start using that anytime. (They use it for PACs and statewide races at the moment.)
WHAT LESSONS CAN WE LEARN?
There are so many things we can learn from all this.
- Technology is no longer an add-on to a campaign. It drives all activities in a campaign.
- Romney’s people didn’t pay attention to the lessons of the past (2008), when Obama’s people struggled with GOTV technology and lots of data issues. (Obama’s people were very surprised at this, as these lessons were public.) We must keep up with these things. We must study what Obama’s people did in 2012 in great detail. (I have included all good public information at the bottom of this article.)
- Outsourcing everything means you lose control and the ability to adapt to changing conditions. We need to hire technology guys into party operations and large campaigns and pay them well.
- We need to build things in iterations, testing all along the way, using simple building blocks. No more building something big for a long while and then releasing it. Too risky.
- We need to keep up with what the startups are doing in technology and translate those things into political uses.
- We need to get involved with the online communities that are out there that share innovation, such as Github – used heavily by Obama’s team and not Romney’s. We also must get a feel for how these places operate so we can build our own Republican communities of technology.
- We need to stop using so much commercial software and use a lot more free, open source software.
- We need to embrace the new world of analytics and social science research in voter preferences and targeting. We need to cultivate a network of people who have these skills.
- We need to discuss technology out in the open. Obama’s people let a lot of what they were doing out into the community so they could get feedback and help.
CAN WE REPUBLICANS CATCH UP?
The short answer is no. Getting to yes would be a long and hard road. Some of that journey actually has nothing to do with technology. Here is my prescription for Chairman Priebus:
- Begin building the infrastructure for the 2016 GOP Presidential Nominee now. Start by commissioning some people to create a Republican version of Narwhal.
- Elevate technologists to the most valuable of all Republican activists. Create nationwide programs to gather them together, share best practices, and produce components. Foster technology projects across state Republican parties. Invite in all kinds of groups on the right, including Ron Paul’s supporters and the Tea Party. Nothing unites people like technology projects.
- Create a nationwide repository for voter data tools that can link to and work with the data from GOP Data Center (the successor to Voter Vault).
- Start supporting the voter information file from NationBuilder. I know that seems crazy. But the party should have a community of people who use that data and build apps on it. I predict that by 2014, the data and applications in there will be far more valuable than anything in GOP Data Center.
- Technologists have policy needs that neither party is serving. If we had a platform that included them, they would have a strong reason to support the party. What are these desires? Copyright and patent reform, an open web (build on what Darrell Issa is doing), prevent things like SOPA and PIPA, and increase the amount of high-tech visas. These things – plus California’s new high taxes – will help change the perception of Republicans.
- Start to offer technology training to activists who want to learn computer programming. Do what Code for America does. (They are a non-profit that teaches people to code and then loans them to cities to build applications for better government.) Find people, train them with great free resources like Code Academy, do some in-person training and programming contests, and then put them to work on great projects. There are regular computer programmers who have boring jobs who would love to work on cool projects with the cool stuff that they know is used at Facebook, Twitter, Etsy, and Google. We should give them some opportunities.
Well, that is all I have to say about this for now. I didn’t even cover the whole story or lots of other things they built. But I think this is enough for my fellow Republicans to start taking technology much more seriously.
1. Noonan: “About those 2012 Political Predictions” Link here.
2. TechPresident: “The Obama Campaign’s Legacy: Listen, Experiment, and Analyze Everything” Link here: http://techpresident.com/news/…
3. TechPresident: “How Obama for America Made Its Facebook Friends into Effective Advocates” Link here: http://techpresident.com/news/…
4. Inside the Cave: The most comprehensive look at the Obama campaigns technology is an astounding 93-page slide presentation from Engage Research, available for download here: http://www.engagedc.com/inside…
5. Ars Technica: “Romney campaign got its IT from Best Buy, Staples, and Friends” Link here: http://arstechnica.com/informa…
This is a great breakdown of all the spending that Romney’s campaign did on technology. It shows what decisions were made – like buying stuff from friends instead of best-of-breed.
6. Ars Technica: “How Team Obama’s Tech Efficiency Left Romney IT in the Dust.” Link here : http://arstechnica.com/informa…
This is the spending breakdown for Obama.
7. New York Times (Nate Silver) “In Silicon Valley, Technology Talent Gap Threatens GOP Campaigns” Link here: http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.n…
This article makes the case that if almost every top techie is a Democrat, then we are not going to be able to compete in a tech-driven political world.
OTHER GREAT RESOURCES
Slate “Obama’s White Whale” – Feb. 15, 2012 Link is: http://www.slate.com/articles/…
This article is about the building of Project Narwhal – a unified database of voters, volunteers, and donors for every application (email, advertising, social media and more) to share everything about everyone. It was astonishing in scope.
Ars Technica “Inside Team Romney’s Whale of an IT meltdown” Link here: http://arstechnica.com/informa…
This article is about the failure of Orca – the Romney campaign’s GOTV platform, that was supposed to be a competitor to some of what Narwhal was doing. This meltdown is the party of the story most people know about already.
Giga-Om: “How Mobile and IT Mismanagement Failed Mitt Romney “ Link here: http://gigaom.com/2012/11/10/h…
This article has an awesome screenshot of the Orca mobile app.
Ars Technica “Built to win: Deep inside Obama’s campaign tech” Link is: http://arstechnica.com/informa…
This is a wonderful article with a great overview of the technologies the Obama people used, especially in how Narwhal and Dashboard were built.
Ars Technica: “Which Consultants Built Romney’s Project Orca? None of them” Link here: http://arstechnica.com/informa…
This article reveals that in-house people built Orca, not outside consultants.
Ars Technica: “Orca was no fail-whale…” Link is: http://arstechnica.com/informa…
Here, Romney digital director Moffett says that Orca wasn’t that big a failure and admits his company didn’t have the talent to build it and that he didn’t see the orca code until election day.
Huffington Post: “What’s next for Obama’s technology?” Link here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/…
This is about the issue of what is done with this infrastructure and if it should be given to other Democratic groups.
TechPresident “Democratic Politics and the Innovator’s Dilemna.” Link here: http://techpresident.com/news/…
This is about the edge the Democrats have developed in technology and the issues involved in managing it and protecting it.