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For Obama's Former Data Director, a New Task: Train More Data-Driven Campaigners

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, January 10 2013

Can "Obama-style" campaigning work for the rest of the Democratic Party? NOI hopes to find out. Photo: Scout Tufankjian / OfA

The incoming leader of a training facility for Democratic operatives says that when it comes to 21st-century campaign skills, being better than Republicans isn't enough.

"When I think about what lessons the progressive movement can learn from the Obama campaign to be more successful, it's not: 'you should use casual subject lines in your e-mail like "Hey," says Ethan Roeder, incoming executive director of the New Organizing Institute in Washington, D.C. "It's: 'You should be testing everything."

Ethan Roeder.

Roeder, who was Obama for America's national data manager in 2008 and its data director in 2012, wants to build on what he and his colleagues pioneered during the president's grind-it-out-by-the-numbers re-election campaign. The next stage in the life cycle of progressive campaigns and causes, he says, will start with a broader effort to inculcate a "culture of testing."

It's something progressives still lack, he says.

"We don't have enough people out there to fill crucial roles in the progressive movement to actually do this work," Roeder told techPresident by phone, "particularly in the digital, technology and data side."

During the re-elect, he said, he struggled to find qualified people to work on the campaigns of both 2008 and 2012. Only three staffers had ever held a "political data" position in the 2008 campaign, he said. In 2012, out of a data staff of 107, only about 20 had previously held paid jobs managing political data.

Into this breech steps the New Organizing Institute, which has been staking out a role in Democratic politics as equal parts knowledge repository and league combined. It was NOI that published a comprehensive look at lessons learned from Obama's 2008 campaign, featuring the insight of many of the people who crafted or executed the president's strategy across both of his national election campaigns. NOI's training programs seek to cultivate campaign operatives and candidates with progressive ideas and digital-savvy campaign skills, simultaneously training operatives and providing a chance for some campaigns to pluck the most promising recruits.

Roeder says that NOI's role as a general-purpose recruiting shop for the left will remain — that NOI will keep "helping to continue to train talent, to identify talent, reach outside of the bubble and the traditional networks of political circles and find that talent and bring them into our process."

With the value of data-driven decision making fresh on the minds of many inside-the-Beltway operatives, the time may be right to preach the gospel of grassroots organizing campaign tactics — if people come to believe that they, too, can practice them.

"It’s change from how politics has traditionally been run," Roeder acknowledged. "And there’s an attitude, I think frankly that a lot of this stuff can only be done by the Obama campaign. There’s this notion, that if we had a billion dollars, we could run an analytics department like that, but that’s just not true."

Embracing what the numbers say rather than the conventional wisdom of traditional campaigns would be a critical first step — a cultural shift that may have happened within Obama for America, but hasn't necessarily caught on elsewhere in the party. Of course not all campaigns can afford to hire particle physicists and big data experts, but they can work to pool their resources and learn how to think more critically about their own efforts, he said.

"It might be a state party for instance, or a third party group that's providing support to progressive organizations in a given state that has a staffer who's doing the statistical analysis, who's building the models and designing the asks," Roeder said.

Finding ways to make campaigns more efficient will be a key goal for NOI, said Biko Baker, executive director of the League of Young Voters and an NOI board member.

"I think he has a huge heart, and is good at training new leaders, and he also understands science," Baker said. "I would like for him to figure out how to solve some of our problems, not rush it but give us a road map so that we can continue to make field more innovative, and to be honest, less expensive."

Jessica Livoti-Morales, now a senior digital strategist at the AFL-CIO, and a friend and former colleague at NOI and on the 2012 campaign, said that Roeder is known for his "idiosyncratic personal style and interests" and that "he definitely marches to the beat of his own drummer."

Roeder describes himself as a "failed performance artist who works in American politics" on his LinkedIn profile. It appears that he hasn't let that identity completely lapse. During the campaign, Morales said, Roeder spent two weeks surreptitiously recruiting fellow staffers to join him for an elaborate Halloween stunt orchestrated from a conference room he rented for the purpose. When the day arrived, he roamed campaign headquarters in a Hazmat suit looking for zombies. "Doctors" came by and checked staffers for "zombie infection signs."

"It all culminated in a big zombie appearance, where there were like 15 people doing 'Thriller,'" Morales said, who said that the performance was a welcome break in the 18-hour workday of campaign life.

Roeder went so far as to prep "victims" ahead of time on their role in the stunt.

"I think that thoroughness is what he pretty much brings to whatever he does," Morales said, "regardless of whether it's zombies, or whether we're talking about gigantic datasets."

Judith Freeman, NOI's co-founder and a veteran of Obama's 2008 campaign, passes the baton to Roeder after more than seven years at the organization's helm. She has also served as senior political strategist for the AFL-CIO. Freeman told techPresident she would be taking some time off, and didn't elaborate on any future plans.

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