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How badly did Mitt Romney lose the technology fight?

Time Magazine has a deep dive into the work of President Obama's data team, something Slate's Sasha Issenberg has been following for months. The upshot: Democrats used data to refine their fundraising, persuasion and turnout operations in ways Republicans have failed to do. 

On technological innovations, Romney's campaign was sometimes just a little behind, as with a Square app for collecting donations by mobile phone. At other points they were months behind, as with launching an automatic "quick donate" system. The initial Romney Web site for that feature initially used copy lifted wholesale from Obama's page. 

Obama's campaign engaged supporters with eye-catching, interesting infographics. While Republicans pushed back on those campaigns on social media, they were still reacting to someone else's initiative.  

"You can't really look at anything the Romney campaign did that was new and different, that was innovative," Nick Judd, managing editor at TechPresident told the Post. 

And as Slate has reported, Obama's team engaged in massive experimentation with data and voter contacts, leading to a huge success in targeting and turning out voters. 

Aides told the Washington Examiner that Project ORCA, touted by the Romney campaign as an untouchable, state-of-the-art smartphone-based poll monitoring program, gave misleading results on Election Day and then crashed. 

So what happened? Here's what we found. 

Romney didn't begin staffing up his digital campaign until after the primaries. Digital director Zac Moffatt acknowledged in September that the Obama team had years to build and improve on its own tools; Romney's web team didn't really get going until after the primaries.

"Comparing us to the Obama campaign straight up, it's really apples to hamburgers," Moffatt told the Post. "They had four years, we had five months." He points to huge online fundraising, Web site hits, and voter contacts as evidence that the divide is overblown. "For us to be almost at parity" with Obama, he said, is "a testament to how we successful we are." 

Since losing in 2004, in part thanks to Republicans' success at microtargeting, Democrats have been building their data. The GOP hasn't. 

"The Democrats are sitting on a warehouse of information that is exponentially larger and are able to derive more insights because of the time frame at which they've been collecting, analyzing and massaging that information," said Cyrus Krohn, former digital director at the Republican National Committee.

The GOP, he says, keeps starting over: "When a new chairman is brought in to run the party, in most cases they throw out of all of the technology and the people that were building technology." 

Democrats also benefited from a web culture that goes back to Howard Dean's 2004 campaign.

"Digital is viewed and treated within the progressive community as a tool by which we achieve empowerment against entrenched forces with deeper pockets," said Matt Ortega, a former DNC staffer and Democratic digital consultant. "Howard Dean inspired this notion with his pioneering Internet operation that focused on 'people-power' as a concept. After his failed presidential bid, it was a philosophy that permeated the DNC while he was chair." 

Much of Dean's web staff came out of technology, not politics. Republicans, without those ties, tend to rely more on political staffers who got into technology rather than technological experts who decided to get into politics. The right has tried and failed to replicate the success of the left-wing online fundraising behemoth ActBlue.

 "One problem facing the party is consultants who are okay or decent, but not the honest-to-God best in the business being given big, important contracts a little too routinely," said one Republican strategist. "I think the Republican effort did a pretty decent job of matching Obama's campaign in 2008, but the problem is that's not what they were competing against." 

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.



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Natalie Jennings · November 9, 2012

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