How to run a political campaign like you want to win

The Obama campaign wrote a document "Inside the Cave" documenting their perception of the reasons that their online campaign was (unarguably) so much more successful than Romney's "Project Orca" team.

For me, the key takeaways that emerge from the presentation on why they won:

  • Four times as many resources, people, targets than the GOP campaign;
  • A massive focus on analytics, which the GOP apparently ignored;
  • Recruiting individual credentialed tech staff rather than political wonks and entire corporations (Microsoft in the case of the GOP) for the technology campaign;
  • Pitching technical jobs as undesirable ("It won't pay very well. The hours are terrible ... Most people who come to work here will take a pay cut.");
  • Dynamic daily reallocation of campaigning resources based on per-state simulations;
  • Daily calling of a large number of randomised voters in key states with short questionnaires to obtain data to feed the simulations;
  • Tracking "persuadeability" for voter groups to determine whether it was worth trying to convince them to switch/stay with voting intent;
  • Use of off-the-shelf open-source software such as R for stats analysis;
  • Tracking and categorising Twitter accounts to gauge reaction to local and national political events;
  • Greater online fundraising (which I don't think was a big deal - the campaign was going to spend money whether or not it had it, since it would backstopped by the major unions and private contributors);
  • Using the mail subject line "Hey" (which I'd bin out of hand, but then I wasn't a USA election voter...)
  • Invoking Michelle Obama's name in an email would reduce the amount raised by it;
  • Never mind gut feeling for selecting strategy - use hard data;
  • Allow people to store credit card info on central website but donate from mobile views via a button click, facilitating "drunk donation";
  • Multi-step pages for donations were less off-putting than single-page large forms;
  • Recruit experienced devs from major Silicon Valley social media companies (Facebook, Twitter, Google);
  • Developing tools earlier in the campaign cycle than they actually did would have improved their campaign efficiency;
  • Prepare and drill for the worst (major regional outages) so that when it happens you won't have problems, and you'll have a runbook telling you what to do so you just have to react, not try to problem-solve;
  • Use large-scale hosting and content distribution (AWS, Akamai) to obtain well-managed distributed hardware and robust connectivity so you only have to worry about your apps;
  • Program backends in Python and associated frameworks (Django, Flask) for rapid development
  • Strong presence on social media posting frequent and interesting (reshareable) content;
  • Target heavy online and TV ads spend in key states, age, gender, racial sectors.

I don't think it's too much to say that Obama's "Project Narwhal" spanked Romney's "Project Orca" in terms of efficiency and efficacy. Orca appears to have been a relatively traditional software and system development, using major technology vendors and consultants rather than dedicated individuals, and produced the result that anyone who has worked with large companies on a business-critical system has experienced - farce. This is ironic, as Orca typifies the Big Government approach to solving a problem, whereas Narwhal was a very libertarian project - find motivated people, give them a cause and let them work out what to do. It appears that any major companies involved in Orca quickly ran for cover after Romney's defeat; no surprise there.

Cameron and Miliband should be taking notes if they actually intend to win the next UK election. Following in the steps of Narwhal would seem to be critical to winning the social information war that modern elections are becoming.

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