"Jeb Bush is building the New York Yankees. Marco [Rubio] is playing Moneyball," GOP strategist Rick Wilson told National Journal this week as Rubio launched his presidential campaign.
Wilson is referencing Bush's vacuuming up of financial support in Florida and around the country, which could give his presidential campaign resources unparalleled among Republicans next year. Rubio, meanwhile, will have to run his campaign on a leaner budget, hoping to do more with less—the so-called "Moneyball" approach of small-market baseball teams.
But there's more to the "Moneyball" approach: It's not just spending less, it's using data to spend strategically. And like baseball's Oakland Athletics, the team that pioneered the use of advanced statistics in the major leagues, Rubio's campaign hopes that if it can't spend more than its 2016 rivals, it can spend smarter.
For a few years now, Rubio's political team has included a data-analytics firm. Its stated purpose: to find and exploit inefficiencies in every aspect of the campaign, from voter targeting to TV advertising.
Optimus Consulting—whose website tagline reads, "Disrupting ____ with data, analytics, and smarter execution"—has been a part of Rubio's political team since 2013. Partner Scott Tranter declined to comment on the firm's relationship with Rubio, but strategists and others who have observed its work over the last few years had good things to say about the company.
"They are a terrific get, and they've been with Marco for a while," said Wilson. "They are a terrific get because they are unemotional and analytical about the work. "... I've worked with them before and think the world of them."
In the last election, Republicans lagged behind the data-driven efforts of President Obama's campaign. And while a focus on using data to optimize campaign efforts could create a competitive advantage in the GOP primary, Republican operatives also say that their eventual nominee needs to start that work now, not after the primary, in order to compete with Democrats in the fall of 2016.
"There are not a lot of firms on the Republican side who do what they do," said Kantar Media/CMAG senior vice president Elizabeth Wilner, who tracks data-analytics firms in politics. "They do analytics for the entirety of a campaign and its needs," creating statistical models to predict what issues and candidates will push voters' buttons and how best to communicate with them.
Writing for The Cook Political Report last year, Wilner called Optimus the Republican Party's "closest counterpart" to BlueLabs—a firm that grew out of Obama's 2012 campaign. One of BlueLabs's cofounders, Elan Kriegel, will reportedly direct analytics for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
Rubio's will not be the only Republican campaign to emphasize data in 2016—far from it. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's 2014 campaign featured an in-house data team, and his political group hired Mark Stephenson as its chief data officer over the winter. Deep Root Analytics, another GOP consulting group focusing on TV and other paid media, has worked for several potential candidates in the past and will likely end up with a campaign. Services from firms like i360 and others will also be in demand. But merely hiring them guarantees nothing, one experienced operative says.
"The biggest problem has been, yes, you can hire an Optimus or a Deep Root or TargetPoint or other firms that are very good," said Dave Carney, an unaffiliated, veteran GOP strategist and evangelist for data-driven campaigns. "But it doesn't matter if the pollster and the media guy and decision-makers aren't going to use it."
Rubio's extended relationship with Optimus, and its integration into his political team as he built up his national profile and considered a presidential bid, is notable—and it hints at the type of services the firm could offer a campaign. (A Rubio spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.)
Rubio's leadership PAC, Reclaim America PAC, paid Optimus $200,000 for consulting in 2013 and 2014. During that time, Rubio's PAC made the uncommon decision not only to give money to candidates it supported but spend money directly on TV ads in some races. Long before Rubio announced his presidential campaign, his PAC was on the airwaves in Iowa backing now-Sen. Joni Ernst in her 2014 GOP primary.
Besides being an opportunity to help elect a senator in the kickoff presidential caucus state, the TV ad buy was also an opportunity to test how to reach GOP primary voters in Iowa. TV is an important way to communicate with voters, but there are inefficiencies built in, especially in primaries. The most TV viewers might be in prime time, for example, but if few of them are your party's voters, advertising during that time does you little good (and at high prices).
Reclaim America's spring 2014 TV buy backing Ernst covered 10 different cable channels in various Iowa markets, according to a source tracking ad data. It wasn't particularly expensive, but the purchase—made by the GOP ad-buying firm Smart Media Group—had the hallmarks of a targeted attempt to talk to a particular segment of voters based on a statistical model.
"A deep cable buy—not just a couple of different networks but 10 or more—is the mark of some serious analytics," said Wilner. "It's about reaching the particular voters watching these times and these shows."
Optimus also spent part of last year quietly researching early-state voters for a nonprofit, Conservative Solutions Project, affiliated with the newly announced pro-Rubio super PAC. The report Optimus prepared highlights other work easily applicable to a presidential primary campaign. In the back of the book, there are results from a controlled experiment using Texas voters as political guinea pigs, testing how much an online ad campaign would boost turnout in the 2014 GOP primary. Optimus's website claims it has conducted more than 500 "voter-contact tests."
According to people familiar with Optimus's work, in past campaigns the firm has also used online panels to test TV ads, mailers, and digital ads with a sample of people modeled to look like a primary or general electorate before deploying an ad—a kind of large-scale, Web-based focus group.
The services span different parts of a campaign, but they are all geared toward the same thing: efficacy and efficiency. And while the amount of money Republican presidential candidates raise will likely get the most attention, how they spend it in a heavily contested primary will be just as important.