Matt Dover is director of campaigns at Civis Analytics. He was deputy battleground states analytics director for President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.
C&E: You got your start a bit differently from most political pros—tell me about how you got into the campaign game.
Matt Dover: I actually started out as a middle school teacher. I taught American History in New York City as part of the Teach for America program. After that I went back to school at the Kennedy School at Harvard for a Master’s degree in public policy. I did some quantitative work at the Kennedy School so I got a lot of experience dealing with statistics and how that interacts with policy and politics. I actually graduated in the late spring of 2011, which was just as the Obama reelection campaign was getting ready to start hiring folks. I was one of the first people to join what became the analytics department—known in the media as the cave. I was ultimately promoted to deputy director of battleground state analytics. We did a lot of the work of determining where the campaign should allocate its resources using forecast models.
C&E: Give me a sense of the sheer amount of data you had available. Larry Grisolano bragged that the campaign had detailed demographic data on every single voter you needed to persuade.
Dover: That’s true, but I think one of the big misconceptions is that Democrats had access to all this data that no one else had. People within politics and outside of politics still have this misconception. A lot of folks don’t realize that all the data we used was either publicly available data from the voter file and the census, or data that we collected directly from voters. What was new about what we did was that we carefully constructed all of these statistical models that could project the likely voting behavior of each individual person. From there we created the lists of people that we either wanted to turn out, persuade or register. But the basis for all of this was the publicly available data.
C&E: What the Obama campaign was able to do with data and analytics—does it only work at scale? How can Senate campaigns and smaller races use this?
Dover: That’s why we’re here. If you really think about the presidential campaign, it’s a series of statewide votes, as I hope my seventh grade students learned from me. So all of the work we did, whether it was our persuasion models, our support models, or our turnout models, was done at the state level. We didn’t build a big Obama support model; we built an Ohio model for Obama. We also built a North Carolina model and a Florida model. And so what we were really doing was developing tools to help us win a series of nine or twelve statewide elections in the battleground states. In that regard, it’s no different than any other statewide election might be. We did create this list of individual voters that we wanted to talk to, but that can obviously be done in other races. If you’re running a local school board race you’re going to be talking to individual voters. So if anything, this ability to microtarget is almost more important for smaller races. So it absolutely can be scaled down and that’s something we’re really focused on here.
C&E: What does that look like for down-ballot campaigns?
Dover: Anyone can access the voter file. So we really have access to the same data, more or less. OFA still has its email lists, which are proprietary. But we also have the same people who did this work on the Obama campaign, and we’re taking most of the same data and scaling down our products. In some cases, we’re essentially building the same products and improving upon those same products to serve all sorts of clients—national entities, statewide campaigns, district-level campaigns and even some local races. The mission of our political office here in D.C. is to help Democrats and progressive causes to succeed by leveraging big data and analytics to run smarter and more efficient campaigns.
C&E: How much of a learning curve is there for those running smaller races when it comes to working with data and analytics?
Dover: The types of things that we’re doing are new and they are the types of things that people are not used to. In some cases, and very understandably so, we are doing things that people don’t entirely grasp. They might be able to appreciate what we did on the Obama campaign, but they don’t really understand it. The good thing is that people do seem to have an appreciation, at all levels, for what we did. We’re not here to just sell magical products that are going to magically win races. What we’re here to do is help candidates run smarter campaigns. A lot of that involves us providing them with some products. But a more important part of that is to actually walk them through the process of creating these things. We’re showing campaigns how to implement best practices using sophisticated tools.
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.