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What Advocacy Campaigns Can Learn From the 2012 Presidential Race

BY Shayna Englin | Friday, November 16 2012

Shayna Englin is chief advocacy officer for Fission Strategy. She spoke last June at Personal Democracy Forum on "The Advocacy Gap."
BackChannel an ongoing series of guest posts from practitioners and close observers at the intersection of technology and politics that, taken in aggregate, form a running conversation about the future of campaigns and government.

The presidential campaign of 2012 holds potentially game-changing lessons for advocacy organizations, even those without billion-dollar budgets, massive data analytics, or dream teams of behavioral scientists.

Develop laser-like focus on a goal

While the quants, models, and number-crunching magic at the center of the Obama campaign’s fundraising and targeting juggernauts are rapidly gaining mythical status, the real story for advocates is the campaign’s exceptional dedication to the end game.

To oversimplify: Obama for America was trying to maximize dollars raised over a limited period of time to fund media and organizing in a set of states and among a set of voters prioritized for their prospects of delivering 270+ electoral votes.

All of the data analysis in the world isn’t helpful without such a specifically delineated path to victory and understanding of the goal. In fact, so much data can lead to analysis paralysis without a highly honed way to use it.

Electoral campaigns have the luxuries of a solid end-point, a clear-cut win or loss, and a distinct apparatus (the party committees) intended to sustain movement-building between campaigns.

Advocacy campaigns are generally run out of organizations with sometimes competing missions: build and sustain a movement while funding and running a campaign to win.

The lesson from Obama 2012 for advocacy campaigners: when both winning and building are goals, decide which is the most important one. Would you sacrifice winning if what was necessary to do so got in the way of movement building? How about vice versa? If you don't know, you can't be smart about what data to use and how to use it.

Don’t be afraid to compartmentalize a bit

Among the “technorati” I know, there are rumblings that the Obama campaign’s online communications were a little lackluster this year, focused on churn and burn rather than true engagement. From what I have seen, OFA’s online program may indeed have been more donor-as-highly-calibrated-ATM-like than it was in 2008, but OFA on-the-ground was truly spectacular.

I know an organizer in a swing state that was authorized a budget for on-site foot massages for canvassers who were out for 6 or more hours in a day for GOTV. Foot massages. It's not possible to get further from "churn and burn" than that.

So, online donors were treated as ATMs (and based on the numbers, gladly so at least for the timeframe of the campaign) and their productivity was maximized with data. Simplifying again, If a fundraising tactic didn't work to drive donations, the campaign stopped doing it. If a tactic worked, opportunities were sought out to replicate it.

On the field side, the data showed clearly that the more personal and local the connection the more productive the volunteer contacts. So we can surmise that data was used to drive funding decisions that maximized "personal and local" in organizing.

I am as big a proponent of engagement organizing and thoughtfulness around engagement ladders (and pyramids and other engagement metaphors) as anyone, but I think a lesson learned from Obama 2012 is that it’s okay to find places where deep engagement isn’t the most effective principle.

Sometimes, donors will only ever be donors and not even that forever. It’s OK to compartmentalize and use what data you have to maximize their productivity as donors. Not everyone eventually needs to be an organizer or even a bundler (possibly the fundraising equivalent of an organizer?).

Commit to data, measurement, and rational decision-making

For a very long time, the grizzled stalwart who knew those precincts like the back of his hand and/or the whiz who has a special insight into messaging, targeting, or strategy has held sway in campaigns. That era of “guru supremacy” is coming to an end.

Just as no serious online communications campaign skips testing subject lines now and then, pretty soon no serious campaign will make decisions about all sorts of things without first doing some testing and certainly without some analysis of past performance. Data rather than good hunches is increasingly going to carry the day.

Whether your campaign has an 18 month timeline or an 18 year timeline, the new age of campaign data has important implications.

Know who’s on your list, what motivates them, and what they need from you to act. The Obama campaign did that through extensive data mining, constant testing, and modeling from expansive combined data sets.

Most advocacy organizations can’t do all of that, but with surveys (in-house or through tools like the RAP Index [profiled here for Personal Democracy Plus subscribers], testing and analytics tools built into every major CRM, and a basic commitment to learning from the Obama campaign’s maestro to “measure everything” and measuring as much as you can afford to, many advocacy campaigns could do a lot more than they do.

The timeframe for acting on measurement and analysis may be long or short, but in either case data can only help.

The Obama campaign won, so we’re talking a lot about what they did right. It should be noted that the Romney campaign tried and failed to do some of the same things. In Project Orca, the Romney campaign attempted a first-of-its-kind real-time data gathering machine for GOTV. It didn’t work, but that both campaigns made major investments in data is evidence of the trend.

Take it from this guru, the future is in data driving toward decisions that deliver on goals.

Shayna Englin is chief advocacy officer for Fission Strategy. She spoke last June at Personal Democracy Forum on "The Advocacy Gap."