What Technology Will Win the White House This Year?

By Michael Carney , written on August 7, 2012

From The News Desk

If the last two presidential elections are any guide, the winning campaign this year will be the one that most effectively uses technology to amplify and enhance its policy message. This winner will be the one who advances the furthest beyond the technological tools of the previous cycle.

In 2004, the key tool in the arsenal was the use of blogs to drive political influence and commentary beyond traditional press -- a war won by the Republican campaign of George W. Bush. In 2008, the democrats took the upper hand through their early embrace of social media for both message dissemination and fund raising.

In 2012, the key battleground is in data analytics and microtargeting, with each campaign spending big and boasting loudly about the size and caliber of its engineering team.

Data analytics is the social media of this election cycle.

“How to manage and harness insights from mountains of data is the fiercest fight among the two campaigns,” says CTO of strategic communications firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies, as well as former Democratic National Committee technology chief and technical consultant to the Obama ‘08 and Kerry ‘04 campaigns, Josh Hendler. “The goal for each campaign is to answer the question, ‘Who are the right voters to target?”

Romney campaign digital director Zac Moffat says, “I don’t even want to talk to people who don’t fit into my target audience, because that’s an inefficient use of resources.” He went on to say that he feels his team is winning the analytics and targeting race. “Our core competency is targeting -- leveraging data and creating appropriate buckets to deliver messages. The Obama campaign works on spray and pray. They trust the network [that publishes an ad] to tell them who’s independent, conservative, or liberal. When I see them buy, I say, ‘There’s $50,000 I don’t have to compete with.’”

Unfortunately for Romney, Obama's existing troves of data are going to be hard to match, should he choose to utilize them -- despite what the republicans might suggest, he chooses. With millions of social media followers, an old but still massive list of millions of email addresses, and the (aka myBO) platform where users share data when creating their own blog or fundraising page and organize house parties or online groups, Obama has an enormous head start in “installed base.” The President's campaign can, for example, filter his network to send a message to every self identified Democratic female “influencer” from 25 to 55 and get them to take action based on republican attacks to destroy Planned Parenthood.

In 2004, it was unheard of for campaigns to employ even a single engineer. Today, there are armies of them on both sides of the table. And -- in a rarity for politics -- Hendler says money won’t give you an advantage here. “All the money in the world may or may not solve the problem,” he says. “Money may be a necessary condition, but it’s not a sufficient condition.” Like within any startup, execution is the elusive but determining factor dictating winners and losers.

Social media is still important as a data conduit. But does size matter?

This time around, it’s not just how many social media followers a candidate has, but how they’re used. That said, there’s strength in numbers, if only for the data that can be extracted for use elsewhere. The campaigns love to tout their social media followings, daily engagement, and other vanity metrics. But it’s hard to translate these figures directly to the polling station. As many have pointed out, if social media was all that mattered, Ron Paul would still be a lead contender for the White House today.

The reality is that a candidate’s social media “fans” are predominantly existing supporters (who don’t need swaying), non-voting 20-somethings, and spectators from the opposition. Follower counts are largely a symptom, not a cause, of popularity. While both campaigns will continue to work at growing their online followings, it would appear that much of the real online battle happens outside the walls of social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Online reputation management is an unsung hero of controlling sentiment.

All anyone could talk about in 2008 was social media, but the Obama campaign deployed a more deadly weapon than the Republicans have ever mastered: reputation management. Or, put less euphemistically, manipulating the press and with it Google results.

In the words of Reputation Changer CEO Cliff Stein, “Political campaigns are as much about who employs the best brand management strategies as they are about politics. The effects of negative publicity can be long-lasting, so campaigns are always seeking strategies that downplay negative media while boosting the visibility of positive news.”

Strategies typically involve contacting the publisher of negative news and persuading them to amend, retract, or post a counter-argument. In many cases, as reported by the New York Times, candidates and their handlers are notorious for insisting on approving quotations and even storylines before publishing -- the fact that certain press outlets stand for this, however afraid they are of losing access, is an entirely different conversation.

Equally aggressive, reputation management teams do their real dirty work by “releasing a tidal wave of positive material daily that floods search results, suppressing older and more negative listings,” says Stein. They do the same when looking to prop up negative news around an opponent.

It may be distasteful to think that the candidates are this blatant in manipulating the online conversation, but anyone who thinks otherwise is deluding themselves. This is a high stakes game and, with the tools available, the candidate that is the most effective stands to gain an enormous advantage.

According to Stein, the Obama camp is winning this battle convincingly. The President’s is said to be staffed ten to one, compared to anything comparable operated by Romney. This team monitors all mentions of their candidate’s name 24/7, working to suppress anything negative that comes up.

“The Obama camp has reputation management down to a science and is crushing it,” says Stein. “As good as the Romney team might be in social media or data, they’re in the dark ages for reputation. It’s shocking that the Republicans didn’t learn from the last election.”

As a recent example of a poorly managed negative press, Stein points out that as recently as early June, a Google auto-suggest search phrase when entering Romney’s name was “Romney dog on roof.” The suggestion is a reference to a controversial incident -- dating back to 1983 -- where the Senator placed his family dog in a carrier and strapped him to the top of the family car during a 12-hour drive to Canada. The issue refused to go away, even after several weeks of belaboring. “The fact that his team didn’t know enough to suppress that is astounding,” says Stein.

To build or to buy? The campaigns disagree about technology sourcing methods.

The Democrats and Republicans have each taken a different approach to sourcing the technology tools that power their campaigns. Obama’s campaign in 2008 was the first in history to have an innovation mentality, according to former DNC Chief Technologist Hendler. The team built the majority of its Web technology and community organizing tools internally -- a strategy it continues to employ this time around. The Romney campaign, like McCain before it, prefers to utilize (and customize) publicly available tools.

Romney digital director Moffat defended this strategy, saying:

It’s hard to challenge the marketplace, because the marketplace is always innovating. The Obama campaign has a hubris based on the thinking that the only way to win is to build everything in house. They have a lot more engineers than us, yes. But they think that they have the only people that understand big data and social media. We leverage IBM who has the very best of the best. They [Obama] don’t dominate technology, but they dominate technology PR.

Hendler argues that tools and teams from outside the political arena can bring an entirely different perspective. That said, it’s not always one that integrates cohesively with the goals and objectives of the remaining campaign staff. To be successful, technology teams must be political first and digital second, according to Moffatt, always complimenting, amplifying, and where necessary augmenting what political policy is doing.

When it comes to tech, can Romney compete with Obama?

Conceding the technical victory in 2008 to the Democrats, and given that the President now has a six year head start, a looming question has been how the eventual challenger would be able to compete. “What everyone kind of misunderstands, in the comparison of Obama versus Romney, is that no one can match the scale of a presidential campaign in non-election years,” explains Moffat. Given this handicap, the Romney campaign staffed up and armed itself admirably leading into the Republican primary.

That said, technology evolves quickly and the winning tactics of 2008 are only marginally applicable in 2012. Hendler argues that there are advantages in being the outsider who is willing to try new things, to take more risks, and think with different perspective.

In less than five months from now, following the November elections, both parties will wind down their technical efforts. The winner will go into maintenance mode, while the loser will regroup and attempt to determine what went wrong. In both cases, technology will have played an enormous role in determining the outcome of this election.

Given the pace of technological advancement, the landscape is likely to look entirely different come 2016. What can be guaranteed, is that the candidate who best adapts to and embraces the most advanced tools available will be the one most likely to “solemnly swear” come January.