C&E: Looking at Obama in 2012 in terms of turnout, are there any similarities to Bush in 2004?
Stutts: There were similarities in the sense that both of the teams were innovative, but other than that not really. I go back to what Mitch was talking about in terms of efficiency. When it comes to volunteers, it’s so hard to use them in an efficient manner and they have jobs and families. They want to give their time very quickly and then move on. How can we achieve that? I don’t think we’ve mastered that quite yet; I’m sort of obsessed with figuring that out. Obama’s folks did a very good job of efficiently using the time of their volunteers so that they felt valued. From my standpoint, that’s one of the big lessons we have to learn.
C&E: And as you get further down the ballot that becomes even more important.
Post: Absolutely. It was one of the things we would think about when I was at the [Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee]. When you look at chambers like the New Mexico House or the Montana House, you can win a state legislative seat by 900 votes in the off-year. You can win some of these seats for fewer votes than you won your student council election in high school. So personal contact becomes very important. I think for a long time we had moved away from that. We just thought we could blast out the media market in Billings and put a bunch of stuff on TV. The more we’ve thought about how to efficiently reach those individual voters, the more we decided to invest in field. We can get those 900 votes by door-knocking, direct mail, and a good combination of all of these tactics.
C&E: Does the party structure on the right have to pick a winner in the data sweepstakes?
Stutts: For 2016 it will be whoever the nominee is. They’ll use their vendor and claim that it’s the next generation. It will be merged with whatever the RNC is doing, and I think they’re doing a pretty good job of trying to change the culture.
Jesmer: I think the RNC is going to pick the winner, especially for down-ballot races and for the people that don’t have the money to do these things. There’s also a question of what you do with the data once you have it. Do our campaigns have the financial capacity to use the data that’s given to them? It’s one thing if you have $25 million in a governor’s race or in a Senate race, but what if you’re a congressional race and have $100,000 in a primary? Are you going to mail 14 different segments of people? There is a scalability on this stuff. The smaller the campaign, the harder it is to use some of it.
Stewart: One of the advantages we have is the Analyst Institute. They did a lot of this academic research, and it was iterative. So the lessons that we learned in 2008 were applied to specials and midterms in 2010, and then we tried to share that with candidates and campaigns. We then take those lessons and try to refine them even more. So we did have an outside group that was really the catalyst.
Jesmer: But part of that is what we were talking about earlier. When President Bush was in office, everyone knew who the boss was and it was very easy to get these things done. When you don’t control the White House, it’s harder to have the iron fist and dictate the direction.
Post: The scalability point is really an important one, because here’s something people ask a lot: “That’s great for the Obama campaign, but can we really do that at the state legislative level?” I think it’s true that it’s more difficult to do statistical tests at the state level, because you just don’t have the same kind of statistical power, but the great thing about having our research in a third party group is that we were able to make use of that at the DLCC. There wasn’t the DNC’s iron fist telling us how to target our direct mail. It was much more about teaching and working with these individual legislative caucuses. We could say to the Ohio House caucus, for example, “I understand that your mail universes are 17,000 households. If you can get them to 16,000 you’ll save $350,000 and then you can put that money on television.” So there are ways to use all of this knowledge, but you have to be a teacher and an evangelist to get that done.
Jesmer: There’s also a tremendous amount of donor backlash right now in our party, as one could imagine. You have a lot of people saying we have to spend more money on digital. I agree with that, but don’t forget that we were also vastly outspent on television. There has yet to be a campaign that I know of that’s willing to be outspent on TV in order to go and put that money online or in the field. We were outspent in lots of different categories. My point is that this stuff is complicated. It’s not easily solved, and it’s not like you can just pour more money into one single thing to solve a problem.
C&E: Do you actually trust the RNC to lead on digital?
Stutts: I do now. I think they’re moving in the right direction. It’s not like we didn’t trust them a few years ago. It’s what we had. But all things being equal, it’s going to come down to message. If you face someone who has a vastly better message, it doesn’t matter what tools you have.
Stewart: I think the point for folks on my side is that we were ahead in 2008 and 2012. The data and analytics that went into those winning campaigns proved that we were ahead. But the life cycle of a campaign is so short that it’s really easy for the other side to catch up and then surpass us. When you look at what happened between 2004 and 2008, Democrats have to realize it could happen to us if we’re not vigilant. We have to keep moving forward and maintain the advantage we have. It’s one of the biggest conversations we’re having right now: how do we make sure that we keep this advantage? It’s a gigantic fear that we have. We don’t want to lose that edge.
C&E: Do you get to a point where you have 99 percent certainty about who your voters are and exactly how to reach them?
Stewart: The short answer is yes. The question of who has been answered. The how is still something we’re trying to figure out. If you have a dollar to spend, how do you spend that dollar most efficiently to get the most out of what you have? Is it better through TV, field or digital? So there’s still a huge amount of room for growth in figuring this out. One of the experiments the campaign ran was a persuasion experiment. For example, you oftentimes ask an undecided voter who they plan on supporting. If they say they don’t know yet, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re persuadable. It could mean that they’ve made up their mind and just don’t want to tell you. It could also mean they just don’t know. So we wanted to find out who was truly persuadable.
We were able to find 10 percent advantages based off 100 conversations. So for every 100 conversations you had with somebody, you would get 10 new votes. We also learned that there was a negative impact from some of the conversations we had. For every 100 conversations, we might actually lose three or four votes. That was another big advancement, but the how is clearly where there’s still room for growth and coming up with individualized treatments for specific voters. Knowing exactly what TV shows you watch and making sure the commercials you see reflect what is the most efficient way for you to vote or volunteer.
C&E: Take me through a typical Election Day. What should the field team be doing to start the day?
Stewart: The higher up in the ivory tower you get, the further away you are from where the real stuff happens. In South Dakota and Minnesota, for example, you’d have a phone tree and you’d pay to have a robo for all your staff to wake them up at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. Then you’d shift out throughout that day about three or four different voter contact sheets. You want to have a presence in the morning, and you want to start knocking on doors and making phone calls as soon as it’s appropriate given the time. And then you want to have people at the polling locations—making sure that there are no voting issues and if you can strike voters of a list early in the day, they can do that so that if you make phone calls later in the afternoon, you’re not reaching out to people who have already voted. At least for us, you keep running a merry-go-round.
Jesmer: It’s blocking and tackling. There’s nothing really magical about it. In fact, it’s pretty horrible.
Stutts: I always say this, on Election Day write every crazy rumor you hear all day, put them in a box and when you look at them in 90 days you’ll laugh about everything.
Stewart: Our joke was always to say we were encouraged by turnout. No one really knew what that meant.
Stutts: I would almost think about this the other way—how about what not to do on Election Day? I don’t know anything about ORCA, but in 2004 we had some kind of PalmPilot that we could track turnout on—remember this was 2004. We were in the war room of the Bush campaign and I’m monitoring Oregon and some other states. Everyone is asking, “Who’s turning out? We don’t know?” The whole thing was a colossal waste of time. It was just to keep the people in the office happy when they thought something was happening. So I don’t know what happened with ORCA, but if you’re going to put systems in place to monitor or track Election Day, make damn sure they work.
Jesmer: Election Day is becoming less and less relevant. There are so many people voting early now. I just don’t think we’re that far off from the point at which Election Day is just the day the store closes. There will always be a last minute rush to vote, but you can see the convenience of early voting in the states that have done it for a while. The trend is overwhelming.
Stewart: We actually tried ORCA in 2008. We called it Houdini, and we had the same problem. It was quieter, but we actually had the same problem. And we had the exact same phone problem— it clogged the lines. I won’t say exactly what we learned in 2012, but it worked this time and that just speaks to the process of campaigns. We evolve so quickly on campaigns, and you just get smarter each time. Given the number of primary contests we’re going to see [in 2016], there’s going to be lots of evolution between each state.