Back in October of last year, I wrote a blog post titled “What scares me about Mitt Romney” that looked into the business and educational background of the then future Republican nominee. My main concern with Romney came from his emphasis on data and analytics - his formative years were spent at Harvard Business School and Bain Capital, where he perfected the data-driven approach to private equity investment. While such skills are at the heart of business, the political world has generally been immune to such quantitative approaches.
So it is not without heavy layers of irony that Romney campaign staffers started blaming the team’s approach to data as one of the leading causes of Romney’s failed bid. BusinessInsider has one of the many accounts of Project Orca, a data and engineering centric approach to Get Out The Vote operations on election day. Rather than revolutionizing the campaign’s activities, the program helped to suppress Republican turn-out efforts by preventing volunteers from accessing voter lists, and making it difficult to track who had voted and who had not.
Contrast the Romney campaign’s maladies with the big data operation at the heart of the Obama campaign, as described by Time Magazine:
Get-out-the-vote lists were never reconciled with fundraising lists. It was like the FBI and the CIA before 9⁄11: the two camps never shared data. “We analyzed very early that the problem in Democratic politics was you had databases all over the place,” said one of the officials. “None of them talked to each other.” So over the first 18 months, the campaign started over, creating a single massive system that could merge the information collected from pollsters, fundraisers, field workers and consumer databases as well as social-media and mobile contacts with the main Democratic voter files in the swing states.
While a number of commentators seemed generally surprised at the campaign’s approach, using data in politics is relatively banal - marketers have been doing this for decades, carefully calibrating their messages to target different consumers. It is not the fact that data was used by the Obama campaign that is interesting, but rather, how was it possible that Romney, the king of quantitative approaches in the private sector, allowed his campaign to be completely trounced in the data competition.
It is not as if the Republicans couldn’t find the right talent. Despite the general liberal bent of many engineers, there are high quantities of libertarians that strongly supported Romney in this cycle. Data-centric methods were also at the heart of Obama’s 2008 campaign, although they were not nearly as well developed. This was hardly a secret weapon.
The only answer is that the campaign was mismanaged. This is really shocking. Romney argued quite vociferously that he was best qualified for the White House given his private sector experience - he had run businesses, had run Massachusetts, and he would be the leader needed to bring the United States out of its economic malaise. Why then did his campaign perform so badly at developing this voter platform and its collection of high-quality, real-time data?
I will admit, I tend to like Romney. I have a strong bias toward technocrats, since one of my core political beliefs is that the United States needs to work harder at depoliticizing more issues. While I have strong reservations about Romney’s political instincts, I do like the idea of looking at policy more rigorously within a larger (qualitative) holistic framework.
Yet, the story of Project Orca forces us to confront a Romney that isn’t nearly as good as he seems to be on paper. Indeed, when you look at the names of the people running his campaign, you start to perceive strong hints of the old Bush playbook - choose people for who they are (and particularly, their ideological bent), rather than their effectiveness and competence. One wonders about the companies that failed under Bain Capital, and if the right people had been selected to lead them.
I think we misjudged Romney. I accepted his data chops at face value, and noted my concern about how that translates to politics. But my criticism jumped too far ahead, and I should have looked at his qualifications more closely.
Yet, Romney is not the only irony in this data story. Republicans are continuing to face a changing demographic landscape that will slowly but continually erode their core electorate in the next few cycles. Perhaps that is why the Romney campaign was so loose with the data - they didn’t want to detect what they already knew about the state of the electorate in 2012. The Republican party has little to offer to solve this problem, and it will be interesting to watch how immigration reform will play out this year.
Data can be counterintuitive, and it takes a strong and confident leader to read data and change course, especially when one’s instincts suggest an opposite approach. The Republicans and Romney never did confront the data that they had available to them, nor did they setup the systems needed to get a real view of the ground game they would need for victory. Regardless of his policies, Romney made a fatal error here, and he got what he deserved on Tuesday.