Long after President Obama leaves office, his campaign alumni will be trying to keep their hold on the consulting world. The hallmarks of their methods—openness, collaboration, data analysis, and testing—could change political consulting from the ground up.
The question on the industry’s mind is whether, and for how long, such changes might take hold. If they succeed, the thinking among a core of younger Democratic consultants goes, different candidates may be elected, Democrats could win more policy fights, and the change in Washington many of them fought so hard for during two Obama presidential campaigns might finally become a reality. It’s a big if.
Consultants from winning presidential campaigns have long enjoyed the fruits of their victories. Many on President George W. Bush’s team were labeled field and turnout geniuses after he secured a second term in a tough political environment. Many of President Bill Clinton’s consultants and top operatives went on to lucrative media jobs and exerted their power at the top of the Democratic Party long after Clinton’s reelection in 1996.
In both cases, though, once the last White House campaign ended, most didn’t descend from the privileged air of the capital to, say, work on some congressional or local race. They seemed satisfied that leadership change at the top was enough to secure their legacy. After all, what more could they do than elect a leader of the free world?
There were more lucrative job offers beyond the campaign world. If they did descend, it was for deep-pocket clients who would seek them out for counsel, no pitch necessary.
The Obama consultants and operatives—a generally younger, hungrier breed that includes many with backgrounds outside politics—are a bit different. They view themselves as data scientists and computer scientists. And even if they’re not statisticians by trade, they’re leveraging science, not old-boy political networks.
They pride themselves on openness and collaboration, and backing up findings with numbers. And after two presidential campaigns, many of them have worked together for years on the ground. Now, they’ve moved into their own offices and as they build a new core of political firms, they hope to permanently change the culture of the campaign industry.
“That is just the way good science is done,” says Dan Wagner, who founded Civis Analytics after going through both cycles with Obama. “Our interest is doing excellent voter science and part of excellent voter science is, frankly, just being open about what you do.”
That openness permeated all levels of the Obama campaign. Instead of just taking a victory lap, David Plouffe detailed their 2008 strategy and tactics in his book, “The Audacity to Win.” Alumni from 2012 like Ethan Roeder are at posts that highlight training and the sharing of best practices.
The New Organizing Institute, where Roeder serves as executive director, strives to pass along the lessons of the Obama campaign to other progressive efforts—everything from how to write a good email subject line to the development of more sophisticated tools for engagement. In the case of The Target Labs, which was co-founded by 2008 Obama alum Hallie Montoya Tansey, the firm is figuring out how online tools can be scaled to help small campaigns and other down-ballot efforts.
Can the predictive modeling that has worked well on larger efforts also have an impact lower down the ballot?
“Maybe where OFA would have built 50 models for something, you’re figuring out what the one model you need to use might be,” says Montoya Tansey. “What we’ve found is that you have to make it simpler and you have to make it cheaper, but the same methodologies can really increase the ROI. You can have that at the local level if you make it more affordable.”
The same goes for a tool like Targeted Sharing. Can something built for a presidential effort translate into an effective program on a much smaller scale? These are the types of questions the Obama generation of operatives have set out to answer, and races up and down the ballot will be the testing ground over the next couple of cycles. If they succeed, candidates from outside the traditional party mold could emerge and, quite possibly, fundamentally change the consulting business model.
Disrupting the Old Network
The number of groups working to make digital toolsets cheaper, and more accessible in a post-Obama campaign world, is only growing.
“If the technology is easier to use, it gives us more room to focus on the training,” says Jason Rosenbaum, director of technology at The Action Network. “We’re trying to make that more accessible, right down to the free price point.”
That could certainly help bury the old model, where seasoned experts ran campaign war rooms based on gut instinct and commanded a premium, because they were the “best in the business.” It’s hard to imagine strong managers or general consultants in the era of campaigners like Lee Atwater wanting to place decision-making authority in the hands of staffers who had never before worked a political campaign, much less wanting to rigorously test 20 or more versions of a message.