Commentary Magazine


Topic: Patrick Ruffini

Learning from Obama’s Campaign Victory

Immediately following the election, a great deal of attention was paid to the incredibly inept Romney GOTV effort by this blog and many others. The failure of the program Orca was almost too complete, too shocking to be believed and it left many, including myself, wondering what might have been if the Romney campaign had an effective GOTV effort on Election Day. Obama’s margin of victory was such that if there had been a GOTV and organizational effort by the Romney campaign even close to his opponent, there might have been a clear chance at victory in several swing states for the Republican nominee. 

After the election, Romney’s digital campaign staff conducted a post-mortem with leading GOP and conservative strategists and, shockingly, reportedly came out feeling “cheerful” despite their walloping not only at the polls, but also in the digital realm. How could these experts have reached a conclusion so far from reality? Simply, many of these digital consultants have a financial incentive to maintain the status quo. RedState’s Erick Erickson named names shortly after the election and explained how and why a group of strategists linked to the RNC and other conservative groups rake in millions every election season, despite their continued failures. There is one notable exception to that group of consultants and digital strategists: Patrick Ruffini. 

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Immediately following the election, a great deal of attention was paid to the incredibly inept Romney GOTV effort by this blog and many others. The failure of the program Orca was almost too complete, too shocking to be believed and it left many, including myself, wondering what might have been if the Romney campaign had an effective GOTV effort on Election Day. Obama’s margin of victory was such that if there had been a GOTV and organizational effort by the Romney campaign even close to his opponent, there might have been a clear chance at victory in several swing states for the Republican nominee. 

After the election, Romney’s digital campaign staff conducted a post-mortem with leading GOP and conservative strategists and, shockingly, reportedly came out feeling “cheerful” despite their walloping not only at the polls, but also in the digital realm. How could these experts have reached a conclusion so far from reality? Simply, many of these digital consultants have a financial incentive to maintain the status quo. RedState’s Erick Erickson named names shortly after the election and explained how and why a group of strategists linked to the RNC and other conservative groups rake in millions every election season, despite their continued failures. There is one notable exception to that group of consultants and digital strategists: Patrick Ruffini. 

Since the election, while the attention of almost every other conservative strategist and activist was focused on the failure in the Romney campaign, Ruffini has spent a significant amount of time and effort deconstructing the incredibly successful Obama campaign. Ruffini, the founder and owner of the consulting firm EngageDC, sneaked into Obama For America (OFA) strategy sessions, live-tweeting and later collating his findings. He has also pored over information released by OFA about their organizational structure to learn how OFA operated so that a future GOP candidate wouldn’t find themselves so outgunned in future campaigns. In one large report, Going Inside the Cave, Ruffini’s team analyzed the organization, strategy and implementation of OFA’s digital efforts, explaining: 

OFA was, far and away, the most sophisticated political organization on the planet. And Republicans needed to learn from them. So we set about gathering insights, data, and anecdotes from hundreds of news articles, blog posts, interviews, podcasts, and presentations. 

The Cave is what OFA called the windowless room that housed their analytics team. Like digital in 2008, analytics came of age in the 2012 campaign. OFA’s analytics team had 50 staffers. By comparison, the Romney-Ryan campaign had a data team of 4 people.

Veterans of OFA have been surprisingly forthcoming in providing details on how they leveraged the latest in technology and digital strategy to make their campaign as effective and efficient as possible.

In 2016, Republicans can’t afford to fight the battles of 2012. We have to look forward to the future and start preparing now.

Last night Ruffini live-tweeted his analysis of the “OFA Legacy Report,” which he then compiled along with other digital strategists’s anecdotes. Why is Ruffini and his firm spending so much time deconstructing the reelection campaign of a second-term president? While this may be Obama’s last term in office, OFA isn’t going anywhere. Mother Jones reports:

Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign was the most technologically advanced political operation in American history. The campaign, led by Jim Messina, amassed and distilled vast quantities of voter data, built apps and networks to mobilize voters and enlist volunteers, and practically perfected the science of email fundraising. Post-election, Messina and his lieutenants weren’t about to let their data files, email lists, algorithms, and grassroots machine simply gather dust. Instead, they will soon launch Organizing for Action, a standalone advocacy group created to bolster Obama as he pursues his second-term agenda.

The new group will be used to mobilize Obama supporters around the key issues of Obama’s second term in office.

Democratic strategist Joe Trippi explained that the group “dwarfs any part of the Democratic coalition.” The LA Times was the first to report on the new group’s hypocritical tax status, given the Obama campaign’s demonization of “dark money” groups like Karl Rove’s American Crossroads, a 501(c)4: 

The organization will be set up as a 501(c)4 social welfare group, according to top Democrats privy to the discussions. That structure allows it to accept unlimited contributions.

The Obama campaign’s data files — its most valuable assets — may be housed in a separate legal entity that would make them accessible to Democratic candidates and party committees, according to a source familiar with the plans.

If Republicans want to make this inauguration day the last of a Democratic president for quite some time, serious time and money needs to be invested in analyzing Obama’s efforts in order not to replicate them, but to best them. Ruffini’s work is a great first step, but instead of GOP consultants and strategists spending time meeting to pat each other on the back, it’s time finally admit how sweeping defeat was in 2012 in order to catch up enough to give the 2016 GOP nominee a chance at victory.  

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