Doing Digital for Romney: An Interview with Zac Moffatt

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Meet the man who is poised to fight the digital war against the Obama reelection machine.

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What exactly do you spend your days thinking about when you're a digital director of a presidential campaign that's on track to win the Republican nomination? Zac Moffatt, 32, leads the digital side of the Mitt Romney campaign. He moved up to Boston last spring with his wife after some years in Virginia and jobs throughout Republican politics, including work on Bush-Cheney '04, with the Republican National Committee, and a variety of high and low profile races with his firm, Targeted Victory. We talked recently about the shortcomings of judging digital by the same sort of raw metrics we apply to, say fundraising (see, the Washington Post's  @MentionMachine ), about how much of tech politics is happening behind the scenes, and about what digital success looks like.

"It's amazing to me that people are talking about social media, about counting numbers," observes Moffatt, "and yet  aren't getting on ballots in primary states ." When it came to qualifying Romney for the Virginia primary to be held in March, "the political team knew two months in advance what we wanted to do," he says. "We sent out emails segmented to specific areas, with different senders tied to each area. When people came in through Twitter, we moved them through the funnel into signing up an account with MyMitt," the campaign's internal mobilization tool, "and we followed up with a phone call."

That top-to-bottom, proactive, thoughtful application of digital tools to political necessities is what everyone talks about doing, says Moffatt. But not all campaigns are. It helps, he says, that he's senior staff, with the same access inside the campaign as the political or communications director. One group of folks known for a similar approach: the Obama campaign, which Moffatt is quick to compliment -- with a dash of expectation-setting. "Obviously, they're very fortunate," he says. "They have a huge head start because they've been building it for six years."

WHAT IT TAKES TO GET STARTED

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. Of course, that presented endless choices to be made on the compressed schedule of a presidential campaign. Moffatt describes his strategy as creating for the short-term with one eye constantly on the long game. "We're building the perfect digital and offline model to make it through the primary process," he says. "It wouldn't make much sense for me to build out a national program if we didn't make it through the primaries. And if we make it through the primaries, we're going to run a very different campaign in the general."

The nature of a presidential campaign can create tensions for website designers and architects. For example, the "carousel," a design feature popular with many sites today that presents a shifting array of images and topics on which to focus, can be used to speak to true believers, potential converts, influential observers, or some mix of all. But the choices get even more difficult when it comes to increasingly important mobile technologies. "Mobile is about what you can strip down to the most basic and still do the most for the most people," forcing decisions about who to appeal to in that reduced real estate.

And the unique chronology of an American presidential race -- both incredibly short and sometimes painfully long -- leads to choices made under the gun that stick around for the duration. Does your call-from-home tool connect you right to a voter, as Romney's does? Or does it rely upon the volunteer to make the call, as Obama's does? There are legal and data implications baked into each, says Moffatt. "You're making certain structural determinations," he says, "about what CMS [content management system] to build on, how you're going to run your ad program, what you're design process is going to be, how you're going to do your list segmentations, all that, that you're going to have to live with for the next year."

Some of those structural choices, Moffatt suggests, reflect more of a commitment to the long-haul than others. MittRomney.com runs on Drupal, a robust open-source system. A close observer of WordPress, the blogging and CMS tool, noted back in May that  six Republican presidential candidates were then running on that platform : Bachmann, Cain, Johnson, Paul, Perry, and Roemer. Meanwhile, Santorum, Gingrich, and Huntsman joined Romney on Drupal. "Building a website on WordPress is awesome for a congressional or statewide race," says Moffatt. "But I don't know how you would run a presidential built on that. If people had done better, I think they'd have to rebuild everything in the next two months."

Moffatt does it all with a digital team of ten people, he says, some of them shared with other departments. That can seem low, especially given the prominence and significance of the Romney campaign; according to a knowledgeable source, Obama '08 at this point in the process had about double the number dedicated to its online team. "No doubt," he says with a laugh. "I'd love to have their design and creative teams."

PLAYING BIG BY REACHING OUT

"That infographic that they did for their millionth donor?," he says of this cycle's Team Obama. "That was awesome. But that's three or four designers and programmers dedicated to that for 'x' amount of time. What primary candidate can do that?" Team Romney's not above  the occasional, humbler visualization of their own. But he insists that stacking up his team next to their team is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Running small, Moffatt says, means "that we go out and find companies whose size we can leverage, experts we can work with, that let us be much larger than our size."

Often, that means getting used to outsourcing much of your engagement to platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, which Moffatt calls the biggest change from 2008 to 2012. "We're going to have people watch one of our rich video units online," says Moffatt, "engage with our campaign, syndicate the message through social sharing, vote for us, and convince their friends to do the same, and yet never have been MittRomney.com. We're totally comfortable with that. You want someone to go to your website, because that's where you're going to have the richest conversation. But you're not going to pass on someone who only wants to engage with you on Facebook.

Romney's strategy requires homing in on people we're they live online -- and often, in 2012, they can only be reached online. "We call them off-the-gridders," says Moffatt. "We buy advertising for people who don't watch live television any more. We have to find ways to get them to watch our video online. We have an active engagement with Hulu, with YouTube. We're seeing that again and again in our polling and focus tests: people haven't been seeing our TV spots, but they know what they are, because they've seen them on Hulu. It's a testament to a new model of consumption. Governor Romney gets it. He's on the road all the time. He doesn't get to sit in front of the TV. He has his iPad, and when he gets home, he probably has a DVR that lets him skip ads. How else would we get to him?"

Other targeted strategies include tapping into what Google calls the "Zero Moment of Truth," when people are searching, often at the last moment and often on their mobile devices, for the information they need to make their decision. "You look at an iPhone 4S, and the next thing is going to be Siri optimization," says Moffatt. "When someone talks to their phone, how do you make sure your stuff comes up first?"

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."

"I can't help it if people go to MittRomney.com and then go somewhere else," he says.

In some cases, the choice to go third-party is less about meeting people where they're socializing than it is about making the most of what's available. "We'd argue a Republican concept: we're never going to do it better than firms that do it all the time." MittRomney.com makes use of Storify, for example, to embed together tweets, video, photos, and more on  Romney's weeks on the trail. "Some people might look and say, hey, only two thousand people engaged with it," says Moffatt, "but our argument is that that's two thousand people who for all intents and purposes are coming into our headquarters."

THE TROUBLE WITH SOCIAL

But blending the political campaign with even best-in-class social technologies presents its own challenges. Those tools' makers aren't necessarily thinking about information management in the ways that campaigns are. And even when they are, their interests aren't always aligned. "If the data's not writing back," as in, being collected by the campaign, "then what's the point of this stuff? That's a challenge with technical firms," says Moffatt. "They don't always understand why you'd want to write back to the voter file."

Moffatt runs through the pros and cons of the social tools. Facebook's ease of use makes it immensely powerful in politics, but the company's priority is collecting data to sell stuff to users according to terms of service entirely up to them; total dependence on the platform is ill-advised. Google+ has enormous potential, but campaigns lack certainty that they can go there to talk politics and ultimately grow their list. "You can spend a lot of time talking to 40 people," he says. Social influence measurer Klout is neat, especially if you could use it to find the 40 people in a state most worth talking to. But at the moment, a necessary refinement is missing. "Are they even primary-voting Republicans?," raises Moffatt. "You don't know, and that, I think, is the missing link of this cycle."

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.

NO INTERNET STRATEGY IS AN ISLAND

"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."

Image credit: TargetedVictory/ YouTube

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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