Obama's Vaunted Ground Game Might Have Been Incredibly Overrated

A Harvard study finds the president only outperformed Romney by 1.6 points in swing states. But is that good or bad news for the GOP?
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What if we were all wrong about the Obama campaign's vaunted technological edge?

That's what two Harvard researchers are suggesting. In a new head-to-head comparison of voter turnout in battleground states, what many believe gave President Obama an edge -- his data-driven efforts at getting out the vote (GOTV) -- might not have mattered much after all.

In fact, the researchers discovered, when it came to turning out his swing-state base, Mitt Romney actually performed about as well as Obama did. The difference came down to little more than a percentage point. If those numbers are right, then either Obama's ground game was less effective than everyone says, or Republicans aren't quite at the disadvantage they think.

Compared to their counterparts in non-battleground states, swing-state voters turned out at a significantly higher rate -- 4.5 percentage points higher, to be exact. And when you break it down by party, the results are even more pronounced. Team Obama managed to turn out more Democrats in swing states than it did in safe states, by a margin of 15.4 percentage points. Registered swing-state Republicans, meanwhile, were 13.8 percentage points more likely to visit the polls than those across state lines. Here's how the study went down. There are 38 media markets in the United States that each cover a portion of a swing state and a portion of a non-swing state. Cross-referencing that with a national voter file, political scientists Ryan Enos and Andrew Fowler were able to identify 42 million individual voters. All of them were seeing the same ads on TV but, depending on which side of the border they lived on, they were getting different GOTV treatments, or personal outreach from campaigns encouraging them to vote, from either campaign.

So Obama bested Romney on swing-state turnout by 1.6 percentage points. In a closer race, that might be enough to flip a state. (What actually happened: Only four swing states were decided by less than a five-point margin. The race just wasn't that close.) But instead of focusing on whether 2012 could've ended differently, it's better simply to conclude that the figure contains a whole range of possible stories.

"You see a lot of talk in the media," Enos told me. "You know, 'Obama has a vastly superior technological campaign' and stuff. If it was vastly superior, it was 1.6 percentage points vastly superior."

Does that match up with the post-election narrative? Not really. A lot of ink has been spilled analyzing what Republicans did wrong, and what Democrats did right. One of the major lessons both sides drew from the experience was that data and behavioral analysis were key factors in the outcome -- an idea propelled by political journalists infatuated with the novelty of Big Data. (I'm as guilty of this as anyone.) That conclusion has done a lot to shape parties' behavior in 2013. Republicans, for example, are busy building a new data warehouse to compete with Democrats.

None of this is to suggest that data and A-B testing and understanding what motivates people is a worthless enterprise. But it does imply that the marginal utility of doing all these things isn't as great as we might assume. In light of that, perhaps the digital deficit Republicans think they face isn't so serious after all. But the bad news for them is that if technology doesn't explain why they lost, the party's demographic and policy shortcomings become much more of a problem.

Maybe you think 1.6 percentage points is actually a lot. Or maybe you think it isn't a lot but that Obama's massive investments in GOTV were worth it nonetheless (the "every bit counts" argument). Maybe you think technology made a difference in other ways (fundraising, signing up new voters or persuading people who may have been on the fence). That's something people will have to decide for themselves.

Update: A number of astute readers have pointed out that studying GOTV efforts only gets at partisan behavior and doesn't address a crucial swing-state constituency: independents. Even if Obama's technological innovations didn't make a huge difference in driving people to the polls, surely it must have had some role to play in convincing the undecideds. But, Enos told me, partly due to media narratives that play up the importance of uncommitted Americans, we tend to assume that persuasion happens more often than it actually does. Here's Enos, writing in by email:

There are ways of doing this -- e.g. surveys, exit polls, looking at aggregate election returns, but that is not our undertaking here for a couple of reasons: 1) research tells us that persuasion is a very minimal part of campaigns because it is really hard to do -- most people already know who they are going to vote for by the time the campaign starts (research by Jackman and Vavreck on 2008 showed that was no different; my guess is that the research by Sides and Vavreck for this election will show the same thing). 2) Probably because of #1, campaigns focus on GOTV of their own voters (Democrats GOTV Democrats and Republicans GOTV Republicans) and that is especially where a lot of the press coverage has aimed. Academics have made a lot of progress is learning effective GOTV techniques in the last ten years and the Obama campaign was largely the first to adopt those according to press accounts (e.g. Sasha Issenberg's book) and our interaction with campaign also tells us that is true.

Of course, saying that persuasion tends not to matter and may not have mattered this time obscures one big danger. This time could have been different -- a possibility that shouldn't be ignored, especially if the goal at the outset is to find out whether something applied so liberally as technology might have helped Obama in new and different ways.

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Brian Fung is the technology writer at National Journal. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and has written for Foreign Policy and The Washington Post.

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