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Home Opinion Obamamania: How the Democrats campaign machine works
Obama • Technology • Campaigning

Obamamania: How the Democrats campaign machine works

Bryan Whitaker - 27 March 2013

As we head further into the 21st century, progressive parties and campaigns need to adopt modern forms of voter engagement or be left behind by their opponents and even the electorates they compete to represent


The success that President Obama and the Democrats had in the 2012 election is a testament to the investment Democrats had put into innovating the party’s campaign technology over the past decade. In the years since John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush in 2004, we can find the context to help us understand how US politics we've arrived at a point in our history where data and technology are getting the lion’s share of credit for the re-election of an American President named Barack Hussein Obama. Indeed, in looking back to the early 2000’s, we might also be able to glean some useful lessons to guide our vision of where political parties around the world are headed in the years to come.

Without a doubt, the 2004 American Presidential Election was a defining moment in American political history – not just for the fact that President Bush won re-election over Senator John Kerry by the slimmest of margins thereby ensuring Conservative principles could take root for another four years.

The 2004 Election also acted as a catalyst for the Democratic Party and its progressive allies to question their practices and begin to use their resources for building the technological and operational infrastructure that would enable them to win elections in the long term.

An important thing to note for international readers: Democratic campaigners are always taught that campaigns are about managing three finite resources to the best of their ability – time, money and people. The lessons go like this:

 (1) You only have so many minutes, hours and days until the close of the polls on Election Day, so work efficiently in order not to waste a second;

 (2) You only have so much money that you can raise for a campaign budget, so spend your money in the most cost-effective ways possible; and,

 (3) You are only able to recruit and manage so many people on a campaign, so don’t use their talents on unnecessary tasks.

 These three things guide us in most of our decision-making. Of these three resources, time has been the only equally shared variable between Republicans and Democrats. Traditionally, the Democratic Party and its campaigns are assumed to operate at a distinct disadvantage to Republicans when it comes to raising money, although, anecdotally, Democrats are more successful in recruiting the volunteer labour to register voters, knock on doors, make phone calls, and get voters to the polls.  

In the aftermath of John Kerry’s loss to President George W. Bush in 2004, the Democratic Party found itself at an impasse. How did the Kerry-Edwards campaign, the Democratic Party and its allies spend so much money and have all this volunteer labour, yet still lose to Bush-Cheney and the Republicans?

 After doing a top to bottom assessment, we realized we didn’t have the data or the tools to properly figure that out. And in that nugget of truth, we found our real problem. We were not data driven. We did not use a common national database to coordinate our work. We weren’t employing modern technologies to help our staff and volunteers maximize the time they spent talking to voters or engaging one another.  We had, in effect, stunted our own success by not having the data and technological infrastructure to help us use our time, money and people as optimally as we should have.

Starting in 2005, a plan was set in motion to become more data-driven and more sophisticated in the way that we operated. Under the new leadership of Governor Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) adopted the “50 State Strategy”; a means of partnering the resources held at the national level with the intelligence and capacity at the state and local levels. This allowed the DNC to build a unified, standardized national voter database with a software interface called Votebuilder that enabled endorsed Democrats anywhere to access the data they needed to run campaigns. Through this national voter file and Votebuilder, all across the country, we trained hundreds of thousands of staff and volunteers to use data as the cornerstone of their work. In so doing, we were able to hold staff and volunteers accountable to voter contact goals, ensuring they were talking to the right audience about the right issues, and, thereby, spending their time most prudently.  

From that point onward, the Democratic Party had a sound, data-driven foundation to build upon. With this new foundation, in every election since 2006 we started asking ourselves a new range of questions like “Who are the voters we need to persuade?”; “Which voters need an extra push to turnout to the polls”; and even “What is the most efficient way to reach young people?” Since we had the data, we also had the answers. To get them, we data-mined our national database, used regression analysis techniques, and built data-driven models that helped us predict voter behavior so that we could target our resources to the volunteers, projects, and universes of voters that were integral to winning elections.

But Democrats did not rest on our laurels with the mid-term victories we experienced in 2006 or the first election of President Obama in 2008. We took the lessons we had learned and have employed them in every election since.  Democrats had gotten the data bug, and started to inject the data-driven approach into every corner of our institution.

We hired data scientists to dig into the data and implement performance analytics to test the efficacy of our work. This enabled us to ask ourselves some really hard questions: Are we effectively persuading voters to support our candidates? Did everyone we contact actually turn up at the polls? What is the highest return on investment for raising money? Are people on our email list reading our emails?  What is the conversion rate to get online supporters to do offline work (e.g. show up at a field office to phone bank)?

We ended up testing the efficacy and return on everything – both internal decisions as well as external. And in so doing, we surprised ourselves at how wrong many of our standard operating procedures had been. But the answers to the tests enabled us to quickly realize our mistakes, devise new strategies, and implement optimized paths forward.  

The use of data to answer all of these questions (and more) culminated in the most data-driven campaign I have ever seen or had the privilege to be a part of – President Obama’s re-election campaign. The role that data and technology played in American political campaigns in 2012 has been well documented. Without a doubt, more resources were used on technology in this past election cycle than ever before. Just as important, we have walked away from this campaign and this election knowing that data is the future: utilizing static data such as publicly available voter information and even commercial data, to the extent legally permissible, sets the electoral stage, and collecting dynamic data from field organizers knocking on doors and making phone calls to gather assessments on voter preferences (i.e. for Candidate X, undecided, against Candidate X) is integral to optimizing the campaign’s time, people and money.

In this story, there is a powerful lesson for political parties and campaigns around the world, especially as we move further into the 21st century. I was once asked, “What relevance does the 2012 American Presidential Campaign have on European political parties, especially since European parties don’t have $100,000,000 to spend on technology?”  The answer is simple: everything.

 Like many center-left parties around the world, Democrats started out at an abysmal financial disadvantage to our Conservative opponents. We invested in data and technological infrastructure, not because we had the funds, but because we recognized they were necessary for our survival. The data and technology helped us use our small campaign budgets more cost-effectively, use our time more efficiently, and – in return – we were rewarded with victories at the ballot box.
 
Political parties of the future would be wise to take these lessons to heart and build the necessary technologies to implement their own data-driven strategies. As we head even further into the 21st century, political parties and campaigns will need to adopt this approach or be left behind by their political opponents and even the electorates they compete to represent. The truth is, our communities are continuing to grow and become more diverse every day, and our people are highly mobile. We will struggle to meet our voters where they are and communicate with them on their terms. So, along with socio-economic and demographic variables, we must recognize that technologies and the means of contacting our fellow human beings are evolving along with us.  As we ask ourselves how we will continue to engage a multitude of voters to build coalitions for electoral victories, we too must identify the data and tools we will need to do so in the most cost-effective and efficient ways available.

Bryan Whitaker is the Director of Technology for the Democratic National Committee, based in Washington, D.C.

This is a contribution to the joint Policy Network / Center for American Progress - Global Progress essay series on The Party of the Future: Coalition‐building and a new style of politics.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Party Politics, Government and Elections .

Tags: Party of the Future , Bryan Whitaker , Campaign , Election , US , United States , Netherlands , Obama , Barack Obama , Democrats , Democratic Party , Bush-Cheney , George Bush , George W. Bush , George W Bush , Dick Cheney , Cheney , Republican Party , GOP , Republicans , John Kerry , Howard Dean , Democratic National Committee , DNC , Europe ,

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