This weekend, The Weekend Reader brings you The Message: The Reselling Of President Obama by journalist, author, and MSNBC.com executive editor Richard Wolffe. The Message, which is to be released on September 17, will be Wolffe’s third book about President Obama, and focuses on the Obama campaign’s surprising ability to pull out wins in 2008 and 2012, despite the fracturing and dysfunctional relationships within the team. Wolffe attributes the campaign’s success to being able to successfully control the message. He details the daunting task of reselling the president to doubtful Americans, as well as the campaign’s knack for using technology and planning to highlight his strengths — and define Mitt Romney in a way that handed Obama a sweeping victory in 2012.
You can purchase the book here.
One of the myths of 2008 was the technological prowess of the Obama team. There was little doubt that Chicago was far better organized and technologically proficient than the McCain team. But that wasn’t saying much. The experience of 2008 was not especially helpful in crafting the strategy in 2012. Facebook in 2008 was a fifth of the size and efficacy it would have four years later. Back in 2008, Twitter had barely begun to gain traction: the campaign posted a handful of tweets through the twenty-one-month election. Obama’s team had modeled its main URL—my.barackobama.com—on MySpace: a white elephant in the world of social networks. The most viral online video of the 2008 cycle was produced by recording artist will.i.am independently of the Obama team. The primaries were so improvised and extended that there was little chance to build any coherent database nationwide. By the time the funds and national organization kicked in for the general election, there were only three months left to build an integrated technology. So it never really happened. Besides, Obama’s digital team felt entirely underwhelmed by the voter files handed over by the Democratic National Committee when their candidate finally secured the nomination.
With two years to build world-class technology, the 2012 Obama campaign had a singular goal in mind: to build a gigantic file about every voter in every battleground state. They started with a basic voter file showing name, address, age, party affiliation (in many but not all states), and voter participation in previous elections. That information was layered with census data showing ethnicity, income, and education. Then the campaign bought commercial data on top of that with two thousand characteristics, including magazine subscriptions. Finally, and most important, they added in six years of data from the Obama campaign: whether you contributed, displayed a lawn sign, and how you responded to every phone call and door knock.
Each voter was assigned a probability score of their likelihood to be an Obama supporter. A zero score meant that you were going to vote for Romney. A 100 score meant you were for Obama. If they didn’t have a good enough handle on you, they could make thousands of phone calls or knock on hundreds of doors to refine the modeling. The more data they collected, the more they refined the model, confirming predictions or updating analyses as they went along.
Their targets were the ones squarely in the middle: the mathematically defined swing voters. Most of Chicago’s essential efforts were designed with them in mind: understanding who they were and trying to persuade them to move closer to the 100 score. Volunteers knocking on doors in Cleveland were trying to find people in the range of 45 to 55 scores. Direct mail went to the addresses of 45-to-55s in Virginia and Ohio. And the TV ads so carefully crafted and focus group tested needed to reach those same targets. If Chicago couldn’t reach them on TV, they tried to find them online. Advertising was moving from what they called dumb TV (broadcast to millions of undifferentiated viewers) to a combination of smart TV and digital (targeted to specific voter types). If it succeeded, political advertising would never be the same again.
Voter scores existed in 2008, to be sure. But the scores were directional rather than precise. People with a score under 50 were generally not voting for Obama. But it proved very hard to tell a 45 apart from a 65. And that was precisely where the election was going to be contested in 2012. This time around, the modeling needed to be laser targeted.