C&E: How much are you still learning as you start working with other campaigns?
Dover: I think that’s a really important question. After 2012 there was a lot of ink spilled, a lot of it from the RNC itself, about how they were beaten by the Obama data nerds. And that’s true. We had an advantage in 2012 and it was an impactful one. I don’t think it was the difference in the election, but it certainly made a difference.
So we recognize that Democrats and progressives currently have a real advantage in this field, but it would be horribly naïve of us to think that Republicans aren’t going to do everything they can to try to catch us. At the very least, they’re paying lip service to it, and I believe they actually are starting to invest heavily in data and analytics. So if we just continue to provide the same services and products we did in 2012, Republicans are eventually going to catch us and pass us. That could happen in the 2014 cycle; it could happen in the 2016 cycle. We can’t just continue to perfect what we did in 2012. We have to continue to innovate and move forward. In that sense, one of our big missions here at Civis is scale down and build up. That was the key to success in 2012—new innovations.
C&E: So many strategists from the Obama campaign world have now left the party structure and launched their own companies. Is it a concern at all for the party that some of the best minds on analytics will be focused just on their own ventures from now until 2016?
Dover: I think there are a lot of advantages to going the route that we went. There are three key advantages to starting a firm, and the first is flexibility. By having our own firm with the same folks who did the analytics on the Obama campaign we are able to service a wide variety of political clients. It’s not like we’re no longer working with the Democratic Party or on Democratic campaigns. In fact, we’re now able to work with more of them. We can work on Senate races, House races, gubernatorial races. We can work all the way down to state legislative and local school board races. We are free and also capable of servicing all those different types of clients and that’s obviously not possible if you’re just working for a single candidate like we were for President Obama. The second advantage is continuity. As any political professional can tell you, campaigns are cyclical in nature. Rather than having the natural turnover that occurs in campaigns, having our firm allows us to keep our human capital and the products and innovations that we’ve created. So we can carry them over and continue to build upon those rather than having to recreate the wheel every cycle. That’s an important advantage.
The third thing is that it allows us to work beyond the political sphere. Our office in D.C. is focused solely on political, but we do have our other office in Chicago where we can bring the products and methodologies that we developed on the Obama campaign to other types of clients. Our work with the College Board has been publicized, for example. There we were able to work with a client that’s having a real impact in connecting deserving students with the top universities in the country. So by leveraging big data we were able to help disadvantaged students around the country at least be better connected with their college options coming out of high school.
C&E: What are the biggest potential areas for growth between now and 2016 when it comes to targeting voters with even greater precision?
Dover: There definitely are some things that we only scratched the surface of in 2012. That includes digital outreach and targeting through social media and online video. Television is also becoming more and more targetable. You have addressable TV and cable companies now have abilities that we haven’t been able to utilize before.
We have a much greater ability to microtarget media and that’s a big area generally speaking where I expect to see advancements made in the coming cycles. Fewer people are subscribing to cable TV, and the media itself—at least in the way it’s delivered—is becoming more fragmented. That kind of gives us in the political analytics community more opportunities to target voters that weren’t available in previous years. We have already figured out how to make lists of voters, so now it’s about finding new ways to target using those lists. That’s where I really think there are a lot more possibilities in terms of targeting media.