If, in 2012, much of the talk in digital politics is about devolving conversations away from campaign websites to third-party social platforms, it's worth remembering the talk of 2008, and even the 'Howard Dean days' of 2004. Digital politics were said then to promise a devolving of power away from campaigns to voters and volunteers themselves. Doing that successfully from inside a campaign, says Moffatt, is a challenge. He frames it again in terms of information management. Barack Obama was skilled in involving volunteers in myriad ways, says Moffatt. The story of Ron Paul, too, is one of often self-directed supporters. "Getting all that siloed data to write back," says Moffatt, "is the hardest part."
Of course, there's still a fear factor. "These enterprises are relatively risk-averse by nature," says Moffatt, and the one-headline-and-an-embarrassing-picture news coverage isn't helping much. "You kinda have to sit down with the team on day one and set the ground rules, and say, 'Listen, we're going to have some good stories and we're going to have some rough ones.'"
Another remembrance from 2008: that cycle's obsession over list size, especially the idea that Barack Obama's 13-million-member email list that was said to give him a historic power to shape the course of the universe. That, arguably, hasn't exactly panned out. Is it still right to obsess? "You'd be crazy not to," says Moffatt. But he offers caveats. First, it's about digital audiences, not just list sizes. And second, when it comes to audience, we're often counting the wrong things.
Case in point, says Moffatt, a recent tweet from Obama's campaign manager. "Stats that matter," zinged Jim Messina, "we've gained more twitter followers in the past three weeks than @mittromney has total." Messina's right on the numbers, says Moffatt. At the moment, Obama has a whopping 12 million Twitter followers, and Romney only a little more than a quarter of a million. But he's off on the 'mattering' bit.
"It's funny," says Moffatt. "When we put out a tweet, we have 500 retweets. When they put out out a tweet, they have 1000. Their engagement is only two-to-one to ours? That would seem to show a fundamental weakness in their argument." Judging retweet advantage from the cheap seats is tricky; Twitter doesn't make that data easily understandable. But Moffatt shores up the argument with Facebook. At 25 million fans, Obama has an 18-to-1 Facebook advantage over Romney. But according to Facebook's "People Are Talking About This" metric , rolled out in October, the president only has two and a half times the number of people engaging with this Facebook presence. Could being President of the United States be inflating Obama's social media standing without conveying anywhere close to the equivalent amount of actual interest and excitement? "That's the sort of stuff that would be making me nervous," says Moffatt.
Of course, that's what Mitt Romney's digital director would say. But the truth is that one of the glossed-over realities of the digital politics space is that reporting on its substance can be quite difficult. (I know, you feel tremendously badly for me.) Data can be difficult to come by. Much of what happens is, by design, targeted and thus obscured. And so instead we fixate on purported feats of technological genius, shiny ad buys, and raw numbers.
"We talk a lot about motion vs. movement," says Moffatt. "I can do a lot of things to make people think I'm doing a lot of things, but is it worth it?" It gets press, but not all of it good or useful. Moffatt raises #fitn, as in the "First in the Nation" hashtag. "Of course we have conversations about how to leverage a hashtag. But it's conversations about how to leverage a hashtag to get someone to take an action in New Hampshire. Now, with Twitter, maybe you can't geo-locate a tweet to the degree that you would like to. But with Facebook, we probably had [during the New Hampshire primary] 30 different posts targeted to a five miles radius," including event invitations and other encouragements to do something to benefit Romney that are only ever seen by those in that geographic sweet spot.
"People look at websites," says Moffatt, "and say, 'They all do the same things.' But I know that our Florida state page is broken down into 67 different counties and that I don't see that level of granularity being put in by other campaigns," he goes on. "It's easy for Politico to get a third-party source to say, 'This person has more friends than that person, so they must be winning.'" He goes on. "The way that the data is writing in, automating the process for your field staff so that they don't have to log in -- that's the nuts and bolts that a reporter won't ever see. But, to us, that has all the value in the world."
The worst digital strategy, suggests Moffatt, is one that exists in a vacuum. During our conversation, I raise a point made by the New York Times' Nate Silver and Micah Cohen in their recent reporting on New Hampshire . No Republican, Romney included, had more than two field offices in the state this cycle, yet in 2008, Obama and Clinton each had 16 there. Money might be a factor; at this point in their respective cycles, the Democrats had far outraised even Romney. And, come general election, the GOP leans a bit on their party infrastructure for their ground game. But Moffatt suggests that all isn't what it appears from on the ground. "When you looked at Iowa, it didn't look like there were a lot of people," he says. "But we were making tens of thousands of phone calls through our phone-from-home program into the state from across the country. The parameters have changed."
That said, there's no ignoring that digital and field are inextricably linked. Once built, technology tends to be easy to scale, says Moffatt. "But the hardest part is who on the ground do you turn people to? The real story of the Obama campaign in '08 is that they had more people in Florida than we [Republicans] had in the whole country. You're driving action, but you can only drive people someplace if there's someone there to catch them. It's a question that every campaign has to ask. If you ask someone for their opinion, you'd better be prepared to be respond. I'd rather not ask and not let them down, than ask for it and then leave them hanging.
He gets in a gentle dig at Obama. "Sure, there's head count. But I bet they had more bodies on the ground in New Hampshire than we did, and he only got 82 percent of the vote and wasn't running against anyone." Still, Moffatt admits that he keeps an eye on what the Obama 2012 campaign is up to. And the decisions being made in Chicago and in Boston's North End are adding the small but growing body of practical knowledge about how you use the Internet to get very close to becoming President of the United States.
"Everyone telling us what we should be doing has never run it," says Moffatt. "There's only one other person in the country that's really having the same experience I am, and they're at the Obama campaign. There aren't many peers."
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