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For Romney's Digital Campaign, a Second-Place Finish

BY Nick Judd | Wednesday, November 7 2012

At every phase of the campaign, Mitt Romney's digital operation was half a step behind the technological savvy of Barack Obama's online team — at several moments, announcing features or ideas hours, days or months after the Obama campaign had already rolled them out.

After the primary election, Digital Director Zac Moffatt pointed out to me that the Romney campaign had not been operating with the breadth and depth of digital staff that Obama had at his disposal almost since day one. He argued at the time that digital communications were not in the budget for a Republican primary.

"Are those roles essential in a primary as you move from state to state?" he asked me, back in May.

In a September follow-up conversation, Moffatt described a digital operation that had been built up to comprise a core digital staff in Romney headquarters and a number of external vendors. The campaign used an external service, FLS Connect, to handle its phone banking by online volunteers. Another external service, Rally.org, handled Romney's online fundraising after it switched from a service, Fundly, that found its roots in Romney's 2007 Republican primary bid. The campaign passed a large amount of data into its own instance of Salesforce, a system used in business for tracking sales leads and other customer contacts. Meanwhile, Romney's opponents in Chicago largely hewed to a mix of systems built in-house this year mixed with systems built in-house in years previous. While outside vendors included Blue State Digital and NGP VAN, these companies were in essence extensions of the Democratic Party — NGP VAN thanks to a longstanding arrangement with the national committee and Blue State because its leadership is packed with veterans of the Howard Dean campaign and Obama's 2008 election effort.

Moffatt framed this choice as a mix of pragmatism in the face of a limited budget and a belief, he told me on various occasions, that the market had already surfaced the best tools for each job. The idea was to have the staff in-house for the general election to connect those services to one another.

"What we're doing," he said in May, "is having more talented people to glue this together."

As the campaign's digital operations ramped up, Moffatt's shop was beleaguered by a series of small losses. A campaign app misspelled "America" as "Amercia" — just the first of several times when the digital team's grasp of the English language would be called into question. The Obama campaign consistently released features or products ahead of the Romney team, whether that was beating Romney by a matter of hours in announcing a Square app for in-person fundraising early in the year to a matter of months in announcing a "Quick Donate" feature that allowed donors who had already given once to send a repeat donation.

Moffatt did advertise some digital successes. Romney's announcement that Paul Ryan would be his vice presidential nominee was supposed to come through a mobile application; while the campaign was beaten to the punch on the news, Moffatt says the announcement still drove two million unique visitors to the campaign's website, 40 percent of which came through mobile.

The digital operation was integrated with the rest of the Romney campaign, Moffatt told me in September.

As with other political campaigns this cycle, the Romney campaign maintained its own database of voters to attempt to find online. Using a data management platform, those voters were lumped into various audience segments the campaign attempted to track with advertising on the web — something the campaign used both for persuasion and motivation, Moffatt told me.

"When an absentee ballot is dropping into a state, we have online ads that are chasing that, emails sent to the person, door knocks and phone calls, all coordinated into one holistic aligned digital slash political effort for turnout. There is no value in doing any of this online if you're not turning people out," he told me.

In experimenting with the Romney version of "Quick Donate," called "Victory Wallet," the campaign also found that people who had donated once were at least three times more likely to donate again — an example of how the campaign made adjustments over the course of the year to stay competitive. After the primary, Moffatt's operation shifted event management software in order to capture more information, like email addresses, from event attendees, collecting what he said were hundreds of thousands of new contacts.

And as the campaign drew to a close, the Romney campaign followed the Obama campaign in implementing a Facebook application — Romney's was called "Commit to Mitt" — that looked through users' Facebook friends to identify voters in swing states. Supporters could then message their friends and urge them to get out and vote. While the application never worked for me, according to stats listed on Facebook, it had 31,000 users.

The Obama campaign one-upped Team Romney here, as well: The Facebook friend-matching functionality came from a central Obama 2012 app, not a separate app. While both campaigns were able to send notifications to their users rather than rely on the news feed, where only a fraction of a Facebook page's audience actually sees a message unless the page owner pays a fee, Team Obama as a result could tug the sleeves of nearly one million Facebook users with a notification — a dramatically greater reach.

As the campaign wound down, Moffatt and his digital operation endured mounting criticism. Politico noted that the campaign had been outspent in online advertising and quoted Republican operatives as saying that Romney was leaving victories on the table for want of creativity. The Romney campaign was able to deploy all the same tools — website, mobile apps, social media like Twitter and Facebook and even a comparatively little-frequented Tumblr, a graphics and design department, and highly targeted online advertising — but was never able to point to an innovation that originated first in the Romney campaign and that yielded significant wins.

On election night, Yahoo's Dylan Stableford wrote that the Romney campaign — either in a final flourish of true class or a last digital embarrassment — had aired Obama's victory speech on its own website prior to running Romney's concession remarks.

The Romney campaign was every bit as interested in quantifying its successes or failures as Obama for America was, conducting surveys on panels of online ad-viewers to gauge the effectiveness of their ads, analyzing the results of fundraising asks and tweaking the subject lines that led their own barrages of email. As the Obama campaign celebrates, the defining conversation about the election's results will be the path to victory highlighted in Obama for America's data trail. The Romney campaign has its own statistics to analyze, even if the road through those numbers does not stop at the same destination.

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