A few thoughts on the 2012 election cross-posted on EchoDitto.com as “Small Money, Hard Data, and TV”:
It is going to take some time to understand what happened during the 2012 cycle, and how the Democrats achieved such a decisive victory. To be sure, demographic shifts, a Republican Party weakened by Tea Party insurgents, and an unprecedented field operation from the Obama campaign were all crucial elements. But understanding what lessons may be learned from the actual tactical work of the Obama campaign will take some time to sort out — especially how those lessons might apply to non-profits, advocacy groups, and companies. Two details in particular appear to loom large for us in the aftermath of the election.
First: small money online dominated. Time magazine noted that the Obama campaign raised significantly more money online than in 2008: “In total, according to new campaign calculations acquired exclusively by TIME, the Obama team raised about $690 million digitally in 2012, up from about $500 million in 2008, according to a senior campaign adviser.” $690 million from more than 4.4 million people — that’s an average gift of about $157. According to OpenSecrets.org, about 34% ($214m) of Obama’s fundraising was small dollar donors, whereas about 22% ($71m) of Romney’s fundraising was small dollar donors. Note that a small dollar donor is someone who gave less than $200. In other words, online donors were the silent engine of the Obama campaign. Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent by secretive Super PACs, the small dollar online donor, giving anywhere from $5 to $150, ended up making a difference.
Second: the demise of traditional television advertising. The Romney campaign and Super PACs supporting Romney spent almost every dime they had on standard political television ads — $492 million, and more than 91% of that spending on negative ads. And yet those ads had very little impact. Sure, they might have been bad ads — certainly the now infamous Jeep ad might have backfired — and sure, the Obama campaign and Super PACs supporting Obama also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on television. But (1) the Obama campaign’s TV ads were highly targeted — a scalpel to the Republican sledgehammer. And (2) that sledgehammer didn’t get the job done: according to the Washington Post, the Romney campaign and Super PACs spent $100 million more than the Obama campaign on television — while the Obama campaign and Super PACs opted to spend money on field and digital in addition to television. Overall, the Obama campaign spent more on advertising – in part because they spent $78.9 million with Bully Pulpit, a digital advertising firm.
The common thread of these two seismic shifts in the campaign landscape — and where rubber hits the road for advocacy groups, non-profits and companies — is the shift of decision-making power away from the old guard that based strategy on “experience” and “best practices” to instead making decisions based on cold, hard data. Team Obama collected an unprecedented amount of data on voters and based their campaign spending on what their models predicted would make the biggest impact on voters. The technological feat that has captured the attention of many was based a far more radical notion: data will beat “expertise.” And on the other side of the coin, Nate Silver outperformed all the talking heads who “knew” who would win and why.
We, of course, welcome our new pocket-protector wearing overlords.