By Evan Sutton
What do DJ LAZ (AKA, Miami’s “Pimp with the Limp”), the Food Network, #Eastwooding, TampaBay.com, your smart phone, and a neighbor knocking on your door have in common?
Each one is a key part of how President Obama’s re-election campaign plans to win on November 6. The formula is simple: reach each of us where we are, engage us with a message based in values and shared experiences, and motivate us to take action.
This strategy is apparent in actions big and small. Obama won’t win because of Twitter, but a recent moment shows just how seriously the campaign is taking the need to meet people where they are with a values-based message.
During the 2012 Republican National Convention, Clint Eastwood took to the stage to berate an empty chair. Twitter exploded with the hashtag #Eastwooding. Within an hour, more than 7,100 tweets used #Eastwooding, and by noon the next day that had grown to more than 25,000, as people posted pictures of themselves pointing angrily at empty chairs.
At 12:29 AM ET, the Obama campaign (@BarackObama) tweeted this.
This tweet – not one from the Romney campaign or any member of the GOP – was the most retweeted item of the RNC. By Monday of the following week, 55,000 people had shared it with their followers.
This tweet resonated in that moment because it invoked values (things like strength, dignity, seriousness). People who felt Eastwood was disrespecting the President and the presidency started a conversation online, which the campaign recognized an opportunity to engage.
This is a micro-example, but it’s emblematic of the core philosophy driving the campaign. While many campaigns are innovating this cycle, I’ll focus on Obama 2012 because it’s the biggest and boldest attempt to run what we call an Engagement Campaign[i].
The core concepts behind an Engagement Campaign aren’t new. But new tools make it possible to reach and mobilize people with a level of scale and precision beyond anything we’ve seen before. Two innovations are at the heart of a tectonic shift in the last decade, and fundamentally change how every piece of a modern campaign runs: the internet, and the database.
The ways these technologies are reshaping politics are broad and deep, but it boils down to this: by integrating data sources, performing advanced analysis, and combining the scale of the internet with the power of peer-to-peer communication, campaigns today can reach people where they are with unprecedented power and scope. And that’s exactly what the Obama campaign is counting on.
To understand how it works, let’s start with data. The Obama campaign has invested in a home-grown database (code named project Narwhal), with the goal of merging every data point collected about me (and you) into a single record[ii]. Once my vote history, interactions with the campaign, and consumer data are combined, analysts build models that predict who potential supporters are, where they are, and what messages might resonate with each of us.
While there are many media used to reach us, the web is ground zero for collecting data, and testing and optimizing the message. The #Eastwooding tweet is just one example of the power of the online community Chicago has built since 2007, one that is founded on shared values and experiences. The vast network spreads the President’s message, raises money, recruits volunteers… in short, it integrates every element of the campaign, and amplifies the message in a way unimaginable just 10 years ago. What once took thousands of staff hours or a major TV ad buy can now be done by one trained organizer with a laptop in a matter of hours or even minutes.
As messages are tested and optimized, the data also determines who the President goes through when he wants to reach us. The “Pimp with the Limp” is one of at least 26 local or non-traditional outlets who’ve hosted Barack Obama since July 13[iii]. When he talks sports with the local host, he’s conferring shared values and experience to the listeners—people the campaign’s database have likely modeled for persuasion—while a visit with DJ LAZ is probably designed to boost turnout in groups with high support levels but low turnout scores.
Paid media strategy mirrors this, especially on cable TV and online advertising. To date, the Obama campaign has spent roughly $19 million on cable—as compared to only $2 million from Mitt Romney—where the campaign can run ads with messaging chosen for specific demographics during shows like Iron Chef America, Pawn Stars, or re-runs of Friends.
Online ads target demographic groups on sites big and small, across topics and regions. Need to reach students with a message on how the race impacts them? Check out this ad, run on a college paper site.
Still, while these technologies facilitate massive scale and targeted, values-based messages, in-person contact remains king.
The commitment to field organizing this cycle is clear in the numbers. In 2008, Nevada was divided into 6 regions. We had, as of Labor Day ‘08, 11 or 12 offices and 63 field staff. As of August 15, 2012, the Obama campaign in Nevada claimed 21 offices, 14 regions, and more than 120 field staff, and they’re still expanding. Across the country, battlegrounds see the same massive investment, often doubling the already-impressive numbers from ’08.
The impact of direct contact isn’t just hypothesis. Earlier this year, NOI partnered with the League of Young Voters Education Fund (LYVEF) and the Analyst Institute to test the impact of Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) canvasses in African American communities during the Wisconsin recall. The results were staggering. Among people contacted, we saw a 19.4 percentage point increase in turnout.
Why does that matter? Nate Silver asserts that Obama would have a 91% chance of winning if all registered democrats turned out[iv]. That level of turnout won’t happen, but the campaign is placing deep bets on its ability to target, connect with, and mobilize supporters. And thanks to the data, every time a volunteer knocks on a door, it’s chosen carefully to have the most impact.
What we’re seeing from the Obama campaign is an effort to take a values-based message to voters through every channel available, and with the most individually tailored message possible. We’re seeing investment in field, online communications, audience-specific media appearances, and many more channels from direct mail to smartphone apps and SMS, all driven by data and a constant cycle of optimization across the campaign.
Obama 2012 is far from perfect. Political data remains difficult to merge, and even more difficult to manage. The campaign has received constant criticism—from individuals on social media to Jon Stewart—for the nature and style of their email appeals. I’ve heard horror stories about mistakes made on the ground in key battlegrounds. But all of that misses the point.
No campaign will ever be perfect. What’s remarkable about Obama 2012 is the unprecedented efforts to reach each one of us where we are, with a message tailored to resonate with our own values and experiences. And that should serve as a model for political organizing of all kinds.
[i] Cushman, Joy, ed. Campaigning to Engage and Win: A Guide to Leading Electoral Campaigns, Washington, DC: New Organizing Institute, 2012
[ii] Issenberg, Sasha. “Obama’s White Whale: How the campaign’s top-secret project Narwhal could change this race, and many to come,” Slate, February 15, 2012 .http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/victory_lab/2012/02/project_narwhal_how_a_top_secret_obama_campaign_program_could_change_the_2012_race_.html
[iii]Stein, Sam, and Gray, Ian. “Obama Campaign Media Strategy Focuses On Non-Traditional Outlets,” The Huffington Post, September 18, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/18/obama-campaign-media-strategy_n_1893973.html
[iv] Silver, Nate. “Obama Would Be Big Favorite With ‘Fired Up’ Base,” The New York Times, September 6, 2012. http://fivethirtyeight.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/09/06/obama-would-be-big-favorite-with-fired-up-base/