How Romney got out-organized by Obama

I’ve been hoarding links on this subject all day because it’s the other side of the coin of how Romney lost. One side is the demographic challenge, which everyone understands by now. The GOP depends heavily on older voters, white voters, and men, and that’s not a base that’s going to carry you eternally into victory in a changing America. The other side is turning out the voters you do have by running a superior organization. This was supposed to be Romney’s strength, the reason to prefer him to Gingrich, Santorum, etc. Even if he didn’t always seem so “severely conservative,” he could be trusted to hold his own against Team Hopenchange in a battle of the ground games. After all, that’s his brand — he’s a managerial genius. If anyone could build a company capable of capturing the presidency, he could.

But he couldn’t. The one piece I want you to read before any other is John Ekdahl’s account of how badly Romney’s “ORCA” system failed. The idea was to use smart phones to maintain de facto “strike lists,” which would help HQ figure out which precincts across the country were turning out in lower numbers and in need of extra resources. Ekdahl:

While I was home, I took to Twitter and the web to try to find some answers. From what I saw, these problems were widespread. People had been kicked from poll watching for having no certificate. Others never received their pdf packets. Some were sent the wrong packets from a different area. Some received their packet, but their usernames and passwords didn’t work.

Now a note about the technology itself. For starters, this was billed as an “app” when it was actually a mobile-optimized website (or “web app”). For days I saw people on Twitter saying they couldn’t find the app on the Android Market or iTunes and couldn’t download it. Well, that’s because it didn’t exist. It was a website. This created a ton of confusion. Not to mention that they didn’t even “turn it on” until 6AM in the morning, so people couldn’t properly familiarize themselves with how it worked on their personal phone beforehand.

Next, and this part I find mind-boggingly absurd, the web address was located at “”. Notice the “s” after http. This denotes it’s a secure connection, something that’s used for e-commerce and web-based email. So far, so good. The problem is that they didn’t auto-forward the regular “http” to “https” and as a result, many people got a blank page and thought the system was down. Setting up forwarding is the simplest thing in the world and only takes seconds, but they failed to do it. This is compounded by the fact that mobile browsers default to “http” when you just start with “www” (as 95% of the world does).

End result: “30,000+ of the most active and fired-up volunteers were wandering around confused and frustrated when they could have been doing anything else to help.” That’s what was going on in RomneyWorld. Meanwhile, in ObamaWorld, they were using behavioral scientists to build a gigantic database of current and potential voters and to fine tune their message at a granular level not only to win people’s votes but to get them to turn out. Read Sasha Issenberg at Slate for more on that.

“There is not much of a commitment to that type of research on the right,” says Daron Shaw, a University of Texas at Austin political scientist who worked on both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. “There is no real understanding of the experimental stuff.”

If Republicans brought consumer data into politics during Bush’s re-election, Democrats are mastering the techniques that give campaigns the ability to understand what actually moves voters. As a result, Democrats are beginning to engage a wider set of questions about what exactly a campaign is capable of accomplishing in an election year: not just how to modify nonvoters’ behavior to get them to the polls, but what exactly can change someone’s mind outside of the artificial confines of a focus group.

“The asset that Karl Rove and his team built during the Bush era, with consumer data—that was good and valuable, but it’s static data,” says Cyrus Krohn, a former Republican National Committee e-campaign director and founder of the political-tech startup Crowdverb. “The Democrats have figured out how to harness dynamic data on top of static data.”

Issenberg, who’s looked at microtargeting in depth, says Democrats are sufficiently far ahead on this that the GOP won’t close the gap anytime soon. Obama’s team also succeeded by emphasizing personal, one-on-one contact with voters; there was an 11-point gap when voters were asked if they’d been visited at home by a campaign in Pew’s poll taken last week. Even with something as simple as buying airtime for ads, Romney reportedly used an unusual in-house system that made things more expensive than they needed to be. Again: This is precisely the sort of thing that he wasn’t supposed to be outmaneuvered on. His ideological heresies were worrisome, but the comfort in nominating him was that his campaign would be smart and efficient enough to fight Obama to a stalemate. Instead, news is breaking tonight that even though Nate Silver and Drew Linzer and Simon Jackman and various other statistical modelers all had a high degree of confidence in how the election would go by the end, Romney himself was reportedly genuinely shellshocked when he realized he’d lost. (An NYT story on his address to staffers notes that defeat seemed to “genuinely startle him.”) According to a senior advisor, “I don’t think there was one person who saw this coming.” With all the information they’d gathered from months of polling and voter outreach, no one inside the campaign had an inkling that Obama’s model of the election might be right? Even though Romney ended up trailing in the last national poll average before election day too? One Republican operative wondered to Politico whether the campaign’s cheery poll spin was a head fake, aimed at boosting GOP morale, or evidence that they just weren’t that smart. Now we know.

It pains me to say all that because I don’t want to scapegoat Romney. He’s a good man. There were, as I said, powerful demographic forces here that he was up against. Obama may well have run the best campaign organization ever assembled, and it’s hard to knock off an incumbent even in the best of times. I have no doubt that Romney’s ground game was stronger than any other GOP primary candidate’s ground game would have been. But that’s part of what makes this election result terrifying — the best manager in our presidential field got completely outmanaged. It’s hard enough to win when you’re at a disadvantage among registered voters, but when your guys can’t even keep pace organizationally with the opposition, you’re basically throwing elections away. Can’t anyone here play this game? I’ll leave you with this, from Jonathan Last:

There was, to my mind, only one qualitative argument generally made in favor of Romney: that his management experience made him uniquely qualified to be president. He was a “turn-around artist.” A “genius CEO.” Now even the claim that his private-sector ability to master organizations and rescue them was a variation on process. And it always struck me as a little dubious. For one thing, it’s not immediately clear how the skill set of the private-sector executive transfers to the job of managing the executive branch of the U.S. government. CEOs say jump and everyone around them says how high. The president says jump and half of Congress tries to countermand the order while getting him fired and the other branch of government gets to decide whether jumping is even theoretically allowed.

But at least this was a falsifiable claim. And the fact that Romney could not master even his own campaign organization in order to win an incredibly winnable election demonstrates–incontrovertiably–that it wasn’t true. If he was a turn-around artist, he would be president-elect right now.

Most political campaigns aren’t invalidated by a loss. A candidate puts forward an idea or a worldview and it can stand whether or not it’s embraced by voters. It has its own truth. But in the wake of his loss Romney’s campaign now looks ludicrous.

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Jazz Shaw 1:01 PM on April 01, 2023