02:17 - Source: CNN
The nerd science of political campaigns

Story highlights

GOP is making gains in technology

Democrats still have tech advantage and aren't worried about 2014 losses

Washington CNN  — 

The nerds are all right.

The technologists who built the Democratic Party’s data-driven approach to campaigning are saddened by the results of the 2014 midterms, a political drubbing that not even even the sharpest get-out-the-vote operation could prevent.

But they are taking heart in a durable truth: Even as Republicans made impressive strides in digital and data-driven campaigning in 2014, Democrats retain a culture of innovation and an army of campaign geeks that far outpaces their GOP foes.

“It goes back to the Obama campaign of 2008, but even before that,” said Tom Bonier, CEO of the Democratic data firm TargetSmart. “So many people came out of the woodwork in that campaign, people with PhDs, statisticians, programmers, developers, people who ran tech-start ups. A lot of them went back to their jobs, but so many of them stayed around. They created new companies, they worked on the 2012 campaign, they work at the party committees. They are everywhere.”

Republicans have gloated about their advancements in campaign science since being infamously outclassed by President Barack Obama’s voter turnout operation in 2012. After a much better year in 2014, they point with pride to new data programs that allowed GOP campaigns to better identify and persuade voters.

“Democrats were telling reporters all the way up to Election Day that their data would be the difference and they would keep the Senate,” said Chuck DeFeo, the Republican National Committee’s chief digital officer. “As a Republican, I’m glad to hear that they still believe in their data advantage and look forward to 2016.”

But even the GOP’s top digital strategists continue look with envy at the technological ecosystem that Democrats and their allies have constructed over the course of a decade.

“They are a couple steps ahead in technology, but light years ahead in culture,” said Wesley Donehue, the president of Push Digital, a Republican communications firm. “Democrats put a larger emphasis on digital and data and technology, they put more money into it, they are better at sharing it. Republicans are much more guarded in sharing their resources.”

Culture gap

The culture gap on vivid display this month at RootsCamp, a two-day “un-conference” — their phrase — of more than 2,500 progressive activists and campaign pros who gather yearly in Washington to drink, talk shop and swap lessons from the election season that was.

There is nothing like it on the right. One fearful Republican blogger called it “The Left’s New Death Star.”

The gathering — run by the New Organizing Institute, a progressive outfit that trains activists and operatives in the fields of data, digital and organizing — has blossomed since its heady inception in 2006. Back then, when “netroots” activists were demanding a seat at the Democratic Party table after John Kerry’s presidential loss, the event was an amateurish meet-up of some 200 web-obsessed Democrats who convened in coffee shops and college classrooms in Washington, Brooklyn, and Denver to plot strategy.

Today, RootsCamp feels like a Vegas tech expo for Democrats.

Participants at the Washington Convention Center wandered through a job fair that showcased vendors, labor unions, data houses and political committees from across the progressive spectrum. AFSCME, SEIU, Emily’s List, MoveOn.org, ActBlue, Civis Analytics, BlueState Digital, NGP VAN, Salsa Labs, Mobile Commons, the Analyst Institute, Catalist — all of them were eagerly swapping business cards with the next generation of Democratic whiz kids.

Panels and training sessions starred political directors and digital gurus from the Democratic National Committee, Planned Parenthood, NextGen Climate, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee who walked audience members — many of them field organizers and young digital staffers from various midterm races — through the micro-tactics that worked in 2014 and the ones that didn’t.

One official from NextGen, the environmental group founded by Bay Area billionaire Tom Steyer, told a room that the group identified over 350,000 “climate action” voters with the help of five in-house data staffers and a rigorous field program. The organization ran 21 field experiments this cycle, testing whether black-and-white mail worked better than color, or if combining messages (“climate and choice”) in certain states made a bigger impact on voters than climate-messaging alone (it did).

The unapologetically dorky breakout sessions had titles like “OMG! SMS for GOTV” and “Simple tricks to up your A/B testing game.” One pink-clad speaker took to a podium to recruit female attendees to the free “women-only” coding classes she was running. In the hallways between panels, conversations could seem downright exotic to the untrained ear, as conference-goers joked about “ROC curves” and “sucky U.I.s.”

While Democrats on Capitol Hill were debating a controversial omnibus spending bill that threatened to keep Congress in town through Christmas, the Democrats at RootsCamp were still focused on the nitty-gritty of campaign life, trying to work out the bugs before 2016 and find the best ways to streamline the software platforms, user interfaces and voter data that campaigns now rely on.

If anyone had hang-ups about revealing their hard-earned intel to potential competitors, they weren’t talking. Information-sharing, the thinking at RootsCamp goes, isn’t just good for Democrats at the ballot box — it’s good for business.

Annie Wang, a data scientist from Civis Analytics, a targeting firm born out of Obama’s 2012 campaign, was one of dozens of presenters at the conference promoting products that make campaigning easier and more efficient.

‘Democratize data science

“We are trying to democratize data science, so that organizers throughout the progressive universe can have these data tools at their disposal,” Wang told an eager crowd during a plenary session called “Disrupt 2016.”

Across town at DNC Headquarters, national party officials tapped the assembled brain power for a day-long post-mortem with over thirty digital directors and data scientists from state Democratic parties and some of the year’s biggest Senate and gubernatorial campaigns, including those of Wendy Davis, Charlie Crist, Alison Lundergan Grimes, Michelle Nunn.

The election results were chastening for the Democratic tech community, said Matt Compton, the DNC’s digital director. “It was a very strong reminder that even the best organizing in the world really only has an impact on the margins,” he said. “It’s important to acknowledge that atmospheres still matter, and the American people will have their say regardless of technology you are going to produce.”

But Compton said the party’s geek squad won, in a sense, by losing.

He gushed over the ability of Democrats to “scale down” the tactics of the 2012 presidential campaign to the statewide and congressional level without having the kind of big budget that Obama relied on.

And importantly, Compton said, running from behind forces campaigns to re-think their strategies and test new tools and methods.

“If you are behind, you are willing to take more risks, to do things you were not willing to try before,” Compton said. “If you are in a really tight race, that means that your budget constraints can be tighter and that sometimes forces you to bring more things in-house or to look for things that can be more efficient, or develop a tool that’s going to help you save money.”

He pointed specifically to the campaigns of Nunn in Georgia, which polished their online fundraising practices by matching their email list against Facebook and testing how potential donors responded to various messages, and the Crist campaign in Florida, which invented a new tool that helped Democrats sign up online to vote by mail.

The Crist campaign tool would check a voter’s submission on CharlieCrist.com against the voter file at the DNC to make sure their address matched their voter registration. If it did, an email was sent from the voter’s email to address to the local supervisor of elections to request a ballot. “No printing, no stamps, nada,” said Amanda Litman, the campaign’s digital director. In the end, nearly 20,000 Florida voters obtained ballots using the tool. Litman said their models showed most of them were sporadic voters.

“Democrats this cycle may have lost, but we raised the bar on what statewide and down-ballot races can accomplish online,” Litman said. “We worked together to innovate, test, share best practices, and build a stronger network and pipeline of talent.”

Kassia DeVorsey, an MIT-educated analytics specialist who was one of the “cave dwellers” in the Obama campaign’s dimly-lit Chicago data office, estimated that Democratic campaigns around the country had about 100 data scientists working on their races, with another 100 doing work on independent expenditures and issue campaigns. None of them were rookies. “These are folks with rich experience with data tools,” she said.

But DeVorsey and others who came to Washington for RootsCamp stressed, over and over again, that nothing in campaign politics is static. Republicans continue to innovate, issues change, and the technology and data that campaigns rely on is always evolving — from Facebook’s API to the information contained in the Democrats’ national voter file.

“Our tools are only as good and useful as they can be used in practice,” DeVorsey said. “If we spend a lot of time creating the most the awesome Phillips head screwdriver and what organizers really need is a flat-head, then we have completely failed at our mission … The ongoing commitment on the Democratic side to testing will really help optimize things going forward.”