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The Advantage of Time

As someone who has spent some time consulting for political campaigns,  I always find the post mortems that pop up fast and furious after election day predictable and simplistic.  The winner is a genius.  The loser is a moron.  Nuance is generally sacrificed at the alter of the greater narrative. 

Having been in a few fox holes, I can tell you that things are never as black and white as they are made to appear.  The winners aren’t as smart as they look and the losers aren’t as dumb.  So I take all these articles that are popping up about the Obama and Romney digital campaigns with a healthy grain of salt. 

Having read a bunch of post mortems, I think the one thing that is being actually being understated is the huge head start the Obama campaign had from a technology and data perspective.  The Romney campaign was playing catch up, with no real chance of ever evening the race on this front.  Let me dive in.

Project Orca

For Romney, the big post-election narrative revolves around the failure Project Orca.  Project Orca was the Romney campaigns ambitious effort to get detailed analytics on activity at each polling place in the country.  If implemented correctly, this system would have allowed the campaign to make strategic decisions on election day about where to focus precious last minute GOTV resources.

I won’t go into detail here, but it didn’t work.  At all.  Ars Technica has a good summary of the project’s failures.

The Romney campaign is taking a beating over the failure of the system.  From the stories I’ve read, most seem to attribute the failure to poor planning, disorganization and incompetence.  All I know is what I’ve read, but I tend to be a bit more forgiving of the Romney campaign then the press. 

For obvious reasons, the Romney campaign didn’t start building Project Orca until the end of the GOP primaries.  Project Orca was built in a compressed timeframe (six months) during the heat of the campaign.  From experience, I can tell you the last days of a campaign are a terrible environment for software development.  People are tired, overworked and frazzled.  Most campaign staff have no background or understanding of the software development process.

Building custom software is hard work in ideal conditions.  Deadlines are often missed and unanticipated issues inevitably pop up.  Building something as ambitious and important as Project Orca in six months in the hot house of a political campaign is a recipe for disaster. 

I credit Romney campaign for their effort, but given the environment in which it was built Project Orca was always more likely to fail than to succeed.  For Project Orca to work, it needed to be planned years in advance and likely spearheaded by the Republican Party itself,  since there was no anointed candidate to drive development. 

Obama Advantage

For Obama, the narrative is about the team’s use of data gleaned from six years of near constant campaigning to optimize everything about its effort.  Here are a few of the tidbits that have come out:

  • In 2008, the Obama campaign didn’t really have a central database containing all of its data about voters.  Immediately after winning the Presidency, the Obama campaign started building a central database containing all data.  The effort was code named Project Narwhal.  Source
  • The campaign launched a Quick Donate tool that allowed donors who signed up to give with a single click.  The campaign estimates that the tool “netted the campaign about $60 million more than it would have raised with email blasts alone.”  Source
  • The Obama campaign conducted extensive A+B testing on all aspects of the program.  The campaign estimates that the move to a four step donation process resulted in a 15% increase in conversions on the page.  That is huge.  Source
  • In 2008, the campaign’s volunteer organizing tool, My.BarackObama.com, was hailed as one keys to their success.  In 2012 the Obama campaign launched a new version of the tool, labeled Dashboard, that the campaign claims was even more effective.  Source

Bottom Line

You get the picture.  The Romney campaign was still putting together the building blocks of its digital infrastructure up until the last day of the campaign.  Since the Obama campaign already had the building blocks in place, it’s focus was on analyzing six years worth of data to optimize efforts that were already working pretty well.  I suspect the Romney campaign was well aware of their disadvantage, as they frequently would mimic tactics deployed by the Obama campaign (Quick Donate, contests, etc.).

No matter how smart and talented the Romney campaign was, from a technology infrastructure and data perspective, they were at a huge disadvantage.

While probably an overstatement, the analogy that comes to mind to me is a well funded search start up trying to take on Google in the search space.  Google has spent fourteen years tweaking and refining its algorithm.  No matter how well funded or brilliant a new challenger might be, it is going to be nearly impossible to build something more advanced. 

From a technology and data perspective, the playing field simply wasn’t even in 2012.