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.
“What is indisputable is that President Obama, in 2008 and again in 2012, inspired an entire movement of people who hadn’t been involved in politics before, and those people are now finding their ways into positions as consultants, campaign managers, and candidates,” says Larry Grisolano, Obama’s chief media buyer, who founded Analytics Media Group in 2013.
Alumni such as Gabriel Lifton-Zoline, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s national field director, have taken senior positions in the party. And many of the campaign’s top leadership founded high-profile firms that are working with mayoral races, issue campaigns, and gubernatorial and congressional candidates.
Along with Wagner, who founded Civis Analytics, and Grisolano, who co-founded AMG, Obama field gurus Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird now head 270 Strategies. Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina founded The Messina Group. Stephanie Cutter teamed with Jen O’Malley Dillon, and Obama’s digital director Teddy Goff, to found Precision Strategies.
And those firms are just the tip of the iceberg. Carol Davidsen and Amelia Showalter, who both played a role in the 2012 campaign’s digital and data effort, are another two operatives who have since branched out with their own companies. Several of the new firms already have between eight and 10 staffers —Civis Analytics has more than 20. Aside from those now in the firm world, former Obama staffers are already filling the ranks of 2014 congressional and statewide campaigns.
“There were 300 digital staffers in Chicago working for the Obama campaign who are now going to be working for campaigns or advocacy groups or other entities with a say in this election,” says Matt Compton, digital director at the Democratic National Committee. “That’s a lot of learning, and a lot of knowledge and skill that’s going to get applied, which didn’t exist before.”
The Obama alums, many of whom have adopted a model championed by Silicon Valley software companies, are not out to just change campaigns; they’re out to impact the entire decision-making culture the consulting world has come to know, according to Cutter, the president’s former deputy campaign manager.
“The Obama campaign was a unique experience because we had the luxury of time and resources to develop new data and digital techniques. But the real value was our ability to work across the campaign to apply the use of data analytics and digital into everything we did—from message development to earned and paid media, grassroots, and fundraising,” Cutter says. “That collaborative, data-driven model is now being used across campaigns, largely driven by former Obama officials, but not only by them. It’s a new type of campaign we are sharing know-how for.”
This sort of openness and collaboration is enough to send shivers down the spines of some old-school consultants who pride themselves on keeping their expertise secret lest their services not be required.
The skeptics—most of whom declined to criticize the younger Obama cohort on the record—generally express concern that wide-eyed candidates and digital operatives will lose focus on more fundamental modes of communication, potentially spreading campaign dollars too thin. It’s not just about the consultant’s bottom line, insist those on the more traditional side of the consulting industry.
“The smoke and mirrors of it is that it’s easy to do in a presidential setup with a billion dollars, but now you have to translate it down to where you have to make choices,” says one consultant, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “You make different choices when you have a $4 million congressional than when you have a $1 billion presidential. You can’t have every campaign doing this mass thing on Facebook or this mass field thing.”
Selling a Culture of Openness
In many ways, this new digital consulting culture is embodied by RootsCamp, the annual gathering run by the New Organizing Institute that’s become a mecca for progressive strategists. It’s a free exchange of ideas and training, which even draws Republican operatives eager to engage with their digital counterparts from across the aisle. For the past couple of years, Republican digital strategist Patrick Ruffini has held his own session at RootsCamp.
Each year NOI creates a volunteer planning committee to pull the annual event together, and the same discussion on openness versus the desire to not give away the store, so to speak, ensues. It’s not unlike the debate still raging in the consulting world over partisan versus nonpartisan technology. But Ethan Roeder says the reality is that without an open exchange of ideas, RootsCamp simply wouldn’t work. “We try to strike a balance between openness and having a safe place to share ideas,” he says.
It’s the same tone Roeder and many other operatives struck during Obama’s presidential campaigns—much of what they did was to push back against the existing consulting culture and essentially “reinvent the work we were doing,” Roeder says. “On both campaigns, there was a real willingness to challenge quote-unquote the way things were done, and reinvent those practices internally.”
For instance, mail vendors for the campaign who traditionally directed targeting of their pieces were instead told it would be handled in-house. The campaign’s operatives and consultants got a buzz from being told, “this isn’t how things are done,” and then having the results prove the traditionalists wrong.
“There has been a sea change when it comes to using this [data] stuff,” says Montoya Tansey. “Consultants at the state and local level may not necessarily know how to evaluate one data tool over another, but they’re all saying, ‘I need to be doing something smart with data.’ That wasn’t the case four years ago.”
One clear sign of the new environment in 2014: digital directors for congressional campaigns are being brought in early, at least on the Democratic side. And those digital directors aren’t reporting to communications directors any longer; they’re heading separate departments. Those occupying this new seat at the table are going from staffer to consultant with unprecedented speed.
“What we know is that data-driven approaches and data-driven campaigns matter, and I think we proved what the effect can be and we’ve applied that elsewhere,” says Jeremy Bird, who ran field for Obama in 2012. In 2013, Bird co-founded 270 Strategies, which marries the Obama campaign’s data analytics with field strategy. Like many of the firms founded by top Obama alums, it could command huge fees from well-funded candidates. Bird, though, brushes aside the suggestion that either he or his colleagues are cashing in on their experience.
“You see a little bit of difference in the folks who have gone on to run their own consulting shops. I don’t think it’s as much about the money,” Bird says. “Obviously, they’re running a business and want to be successful with that, but I think you see a little bit of a different approach to combining that and making sure you’re making a difference and working with people who are inspiring.”
When it comes to advocacy, 270 has worked on healthcare, voting rights, education reform, environmental issues and women’s issues—not exactly Fortune 500 retainers.
“I woke up every day for a little over six years feeling like everything I did had a purpose and mattered,” Bird says. “I didn’t want to wake up in 2013 and not feel that same feeling.”
Meeting the Scalability Challenge
The Obama campaign’s command of data is now the stuff of political legend akin to the Bush campaign’s targeting of evangelical Christians or Clinton’s “triangulation.”
Grisolano, a veteran media and advertising consultant, explains how the campaign’s use of data always went back to two things: “Every piece of data that we collected was always boiled down to a measure of people’s likelihood to vote and likelihood to vote for Obama,” he says. “That sounds very simple and very obvious, but if David Plouffe or Jim Messina hadn’t had that focus on the data they would have been running around like a chicken with their head cut off.”
Every hour of the campaign brought in new data that could have drawn a strategic reaction.
“The array of data that was being amassed was so voluminous that it could have led you in a bunch of different directions,” says Grisolano. But if analyzed the right way, the information was a “goldmine” that led to an unprecedented level of efficiency.
“We could use [the probability scores] to make everything we did smarter—our phone calling and door knocking, our acquisition of online supporters, our social media, our television advertising, and so on,” he says.
It’s that efficiency that firms like 270 Strategies, BlueLabs, and Civis Analytics are now selling.
“It’s the backdrop for everything you see happening out there with these Obama spinoff firms,” says Grisolano. “There’s a certain kind of traditional viewpoint that some of this stuff is overhyped smoke and mirrors. But as time goes by, people are going to be more and more reliant on these methods and these efficiency tools for audience measurement, because you simply aren’t going to be able to hold onto the old way of doing things for very long.”
Still, it’s not questions about their effectiveness that will keep the Obama campaign techniques and their practitioners from solidifying their hold on the consulting world. It’ll be whether they can answer a bottom-line question: are they affordable for smaller campaigns?
“That’s one of the big things we’re trying to do—scalability,” says Matthew Holleque, a statistician who worked for Obama last year before co-founding BlueLabs, a data analytics firm. “The Obama campaign was a massive organization and was a great place for a lot of innovation and testing and coming up with best practices. Now the challenge that we’re facing is how to bring that down to races of different sizes—statewide races, congressional races, even local races.”
While the scalability remains an issue, the data analytical approach championed on the Obama campaign is becoming gospel in nearly every corner of the consulting industry.
“A lot of the new folks who have come onto the scene in the last two presidential election cycles have certainly changed the way everyone does business,” says Christopher Massicotte, a partner at the Democratic digital advertising firm DSPolitical. “They’re bringing in new perspectives, new ideas and new ways of communicating with voters.”
Even some party greybeards have bought in. “They have actually been improved through this new method of campaigning. A lot of them have become data-driven,” he says.
According to Wagner, the question of scalability has already been answered, and that’s the reason why Obama-style data analytics is gaining more adherents. “In 2010, if you wanted analytics you needed lots of money, you needed a ton of resources,” he says. “In 2012, if you wanted [what the Obama campaign had] you needed to pay lots of money.”
Now, the technology is significantly cheaper, he says, pointing to a server that cost $20,000 in 2009, which now costs $100 on Amazon.com.
“The big thing this does is it lowers the barriers to entry for smaller candidates,” says Wagner. “There’s just general availability of data that’s so much higher than anything we’ve seen in history. More importantly, people are using these types of methods and these types of technologies to get better results. There is a compelling record of credibility that exists that didn’t exist in the past.”
That faith in the methodology and science is what many Obama consultants think will sideline some old-school operatives, who formerly traded on their gut instinct, name, and networks.
“Maybe in decades past you had more campaign people making piles and piles of money, just sort of pretending they knew what they were doing,” says Amelia Showalter, who was Obama’s director of digital analytics in 2012. “Maybe some of them did and some of them didn’t.”
The era has ended in Washington for “the smartest-guy-in-the-room phenomenon,” she says. “You have to have numbers to back it up.”
The question for this group of Obama consultants after a few more campaign cycles will be whether those numbers add up to the change they all believed in.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, a quote from Dan Wagner referenced the Voter Activation Network. He was actually referring to the Obama campaign's internal data structure, not the VAN.
Sean J. Miller is a contributing editor to Campaigns & Elections magazine. Shane D’Aprile contributed reporting.