The Organization of New Media in the 2012 Campaign

If you want to understand new media and politics from a practitioner’s perspective, a great place to start would be this interview with Zac Moffatt, the Digital Director of Romney’s presidential campaign, in the Atlantic.  It offers a wonderfully detailed look at the organizational and technical challenges that practitioners face in their uptake of new media in a presidential run, from issues of staffing and data integration to the coordination of digital and field efforts around electoral strategy.

In short, Moffatt’s interview provides a wonderful account of technology-in-the-making, revealing all the behind the scenes organizational, social, and technical work that goes into producing a presidential campaign.  I spend three hundred pages of my forthcoming book chronicling similar work in Democratic politics, following a group of new media staffers across campaigns, organizations, and electoral cycles as they engaged in the painstaking work of planning, developing, maintaining, repairing, and crafting new technologies for  campaigns.  This is what the actual work of new media and politics entails.  I argue, and Moffatt’s account supports, that the form of online politics – what campaigns and citizens have the capacity to do during elections – is the outcome of this work of technology building.  As such, these projects suggest that many of our paradigmatic accounts of new media and politics that attribute changes in political organization and participation to the lowered cost of organizing collective action (canonical accounts such as Bruce Bimber’s excellent Information and American Democracy and more popular accounts like Clay Shirky’s Organizing Without Organizations) leave much out of their frames of reference.  The most taken-for-granted forms of online political collective action, such as donating money and contacting voters, are premised upon months and years of technical development, organization building, and staff training.

A couple of interesting things that emerge from Moffatt’s account.  First, I focus on how important it was that Obama’s campaign organization invested in new media early in the primaries, created the organizational structure that made the New Media Division a central part of the campaign and its head a member of the senior staff, and helped integrate new media with the finance, field, and communications operations.  From Moffatt’s account, it sounds like the Romney campaign is taking exactly the same approach.

Second, this is an interesting thing to watch for those interested in technical development and innovation:  “Romney ’12 started from scratch, says Moffatt. Challenging, yes, but not without its advantages, such as having no legacy of circa-2007 tools and thinking to build from.”  Moffatt is hoping for what Gerschenkron calls the “relative advantage of backwardness” – the idea that having a clean slate offers development that is unencumbered with the residue of older systems.  I discuss this in the context of how the Democratic Party built a new generation of database systems and internet applications after the 2004 elections.  In the process, they were able to leverage dramatic improvements in storage capacity and processing speeds, and build their voter file database and interface in a much more integrated fashion than what was possible when the Republicans built their voter database called VoterVault in 1995.  As such, the narrative of a game of technological ‘catch-up’ often written about in the political press is not quite accurate.  Different systems have different paths of development.  The Democrats were able to surpass the Republicans during the 2008 elections in terms of the party’s database infrastructure because their technical efforts occurred in a markedly different context with different underlying technologies.

The question is whether the lack of existing infrastructure will be an advantage that will outstrip the work of Obama’s new media staffers and firms in-between elections at building infrastructure for this presidential run.  I am doubtful, in large party because the technologies utilized by Democratic campaigns developed over four years and were tested during the 2006 midterm elections, which is a lot more time than the Romney operation has (that said, his team was also active refining their voter databases and targeting strategies since 2008).  On the Obama campaign side, I expect much of there to be much better integration between the various databases used on the campaign, a problem that plagued his new media and field staffers and consumed much time and effort.

Third, there are some good tidbits in this interview about online advertising.  Moffatt describes how: “The techniques made possible by today’s technologies aren’t always the easiest of sells, inside the campaign and out. “One of the biggest challenges this cycle is getting people to understand remarketing,” as in the use of behavioral ads that trail users as they travel around the web. “People think you’re advertising to a page,” says Moffatt. “No, I’m advertising to that user. It’s a commentary on that person, not that site.”  Online advertising has been a generally small area of campaign expenditure, for complex reasons that I am in the process of writing up for ICA.  That said, Moffatt also reveals the shift from advertising in publications to advertising to individuals, which is growing increasingly sophisticated given the wider range of data campaigns now have at their disposal.

Of course, all the technical innovation and new media strategy in the world did not produce the extraordinary mobilization around the Obama campaign in 2008.  Tools and organization translated the efforts of millions mobilized by Obama’s charisma, rhetoric, and the political opportunity to elect a Democrat and African-American to the presidency into the concrete electoral resources that formed the mantra for the campaign’s New Media Division: “money, message, and mobilization.”  Michael Slaby, the 2008 campaign’s Chief Technology Officer and 2012 campaign’s Chief Integration and Innovation Officer, describes how “we didn’t have to generate desire very often. We had to capture and empower interest and desire…We made intelligent decisions that kept it growing but I don’t think anybody can really claim we started something.”

The mobilization generated by Romeny’s candidacy is, at least for now, on quite a different scale.

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