Obama, Romney, and GOP Technology: A Chilling Analysis

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edfactor @ Red Mass Group:

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.

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“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?

Lessons Learned

– What are the big lessons?
– Can Republicans catch up?


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.


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.)


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. ” [1]

(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.” [2]

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.

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Curt served in the Marine Corps for four years and has been a law enforcement officer in Los Angeles for the last 24 years.

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