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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Obama, The Ground Game and The Future

With our presidential election a few weeks behind us, many people are doing a good bit of Monday morning quarterbacking. Neither the President nor Governor Romney ran a particularly distinguished campaign but most agree that the President out-organized the former Massachusetts governor. Typically, people refer to this practice as “the ground game”.

For most people, the ground game is campaign field operations where a candidate’s team identifies likely voters and makes a strong effort to get them to come to the polls. Campaigns are famous for driving the old and the infirm to the polling station. It is done county by county across the country and, in urban areas, block by block.

This time it was different, really different. The Obama campaign had a technological edge over the GOP as they employed e-mail, Facebook, micro-targeting, and other social media venues to reach prospects. They keyed on the women, young voters, Latinos, and African-Americans that the president carried in 2008 and nearly approached or matched delivery in every one of those key target groups this year.

Virtually all political observers would admit that the President ran a brilliant campaign in 2008. Well, they had captured a mind-boggling e-mail list of 13 million voters four years ago. They went back and reworked that list and profiled potential voters very carefully. Messages were customized to appeal to those voters once again.

They opened regional offices some 15 months before the election and staffed them with professionals. People were visited and contacted by the campaign many times prior to the election.

While all this was going on, Mitt Romney was fighting a bruising primary campaign to get the GOP nomination. Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania Senator with no chance of winning the general election held on through May and diverted Romney’s team from building a grassroots base in many key markets. Romney had some smart people, no doubt. But, the president’s regional efforts were 9-10 months ahead of them in getting started and that may have made the difference. Early voting also helped as the president’s team encouraged and helped many who might not have been able to vote on Election Day to get to the polls early.

I live in a non-battleground state. Twice, I showed up for early voting and left due to long lines. On my third try, I waited 50 minutes in a drizzle and cast my vote on Wednesday prior to the election. Something was clearly up. And the Romney group’s chief tool was Project Orca, a software program that’s purpose was to get out the vote on Election Day. It may have been good, it may have been poor, but in several states, the President had built up such a commanding lead that a GOP get out the vote effort  on Election Day almost had to fall short.

So, what does all this mean for the future? Some Obama loyalists are saying that their man inspired such enthusiasm from so many that their ground game in 2012 cannot be replicated in 2016. Perhaps there is a bit of truth there but you can be sure that the GOP will bring in their own team of data crunching geeks to sharpen performance going forward. And consider this scenario—what if Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton, announces for President early? She can build her organization and would likely be the presumptive nominee shortly after her announcement. The Republicans may have another group of gadflies getting in the way of a few serious candidates. So Secretary Clinton would have the organizational lead and in summer of 2016 the GOP nominee would face the same game of catch-up that Romney did this year.

(Why were the polls so wrong? Well, you can’t rely on old technology. Some 35% of us don’t have a landline, and those geezers who still do usually have caller ID and won’t pick up the phone when they see who is calling.)

In the future, advertising may pay a lesser role and TV stations and cable players in battleground states may not get the bonanza of cash that they received this year. Pin-point targeting will get better and better. Also, four years from now there is an excellent chance that a sophisticated campaign will reach and engage voters by somehow connecting TV advertising to mobile, the web, or social media in ways that no one has developed to date.

In ancient Rome, there was a saying that translates as follows—“He who has the gold, makes the rules.” Over the years, we bastardized that by substituting advertising dollars or marketing strength for gold. Going forward, may I suggest that in politics it will be—“The campaign with the better data that yields better messaging, wins.”

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

1 comment:

  1. Interesting commentary, Don. While Obama's campaign folks may have played a better ground game via social media, fewer of the Prez' voters came out this year vs 4 years ago. The popular vote was (approximately) 58M to 56M, yet Obama had the electorate locked up fairly early. If one doesn't live in a swing state, it begs the questions, "does my vote REALLY count?" Interesting to note that Obama clinched the neccessary electoral votes needed for victory even before his beloved Hollywood followers pulled their levers! Bottom line, perhaps it's time to rethink our electoral college structure. A few great articles in the NYT Nov 12 issue in regards...
    Happy Turkey Day,
    An Atlanta Fan