Team Obama heads downballot

President Obama / White House, Used under a Government Work license
President Obama / White House, Used under a Government Work license

WASHINGTON, March 10, 2014 — Widely lauded for their use of technology and advance data analysis in 2012, Democrats are trying to replicate the smartest aspects of President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign with Project Ivy.

A project of the Democratic National Committee announced in late February, Project Ivy seeks to give down-ballot candidates access to advanced analytics and voter data management tools. The reasoning is that if such tools can swing tens of thousands of votes in key precincts to carry a presidential election, they can certainly swing a few hundred votes to carry a congressional or state legislative seat.

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It’s a great idea, but will it scare the Republican Party’s 2014 candidates? It shouldn’t.

Many pundits will view this fall’s mid-terms through the lens of 2012. The conventional wisdom tells us that the Obama team moneyballed a tight election into a 332-206 electoral college blowout over Mitt Romney by deploying an army of data nerds to shake loose every last vote. There is a bit more than just a kernel of truth there: Obama’s margins of victory in the four closest states that would have put Romney over the top (Florida, Nevada, Ohio, and Virginia) outperformed his poll numbers leading up to election day.

But get-out-the-vote efforts aren’t magic that happen in the final fortnight of a campaign. The truth is that Team Obama had been crafting an image among his most ardent supporters for years, from the days of “Yes We Can” and “Hope and Change” to “Forward.”

As a result, the October 2012 get-out-the-vote messages found a willing audience that just needed to be reminded when and where to vote. When the Pew Research Center pored over the exit polls, they found than 70 percent of Obama voters were strong supporters of their candidate, compared to only 60 percent of Romney voters.

The Obama digital effort didn’t create excitement, it mobilized excitement.

The campaign’s much-hyped outreach to true believers and low-information voters happened in the context of a well-defined product: Barack Obama, Bold Visionary (est. 2008). Playing with less time to define himself — and weighed down with the baggage of inarticulate Republican Senate candidates firmly affixing their feet in their mouths — Romney had no chance.

The Democrats’ slate of 2014 candidates won’t have the same message-related advantages as Obama had in 2012. Project Ivy will help, but a generic Joe Blue running for Congress on the Democratic ticket won’t see the same bump from advanced data analysis that Obama enjoyed. That puts 2014 Republicans on a more even playing field if they combine strong, disciplined messaging with a smart GOTV effort of their own. Project Ivy or no, 2014 can be a very successful year for Republicans.

But the GOP needs to be very careful about what happens after that.

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The data tools used this year may not help Democrats keep their hold on the Senate, or win more Governorships, or even gain ground in state legislative chambers. But all the data collected with those tools in 2014 will be mighty useful when a few hundred votes in Cuyahoga County could decide the White House in two short years.

Republicans may not need to match Democrats data point for data point to have a pretty good election cycle in 2014. But deploying their own tools with the future in mind will help build their abilities for coming cycles.

As the GOP looks to take back the Senate this fall, they can’t forget to keep an eye on 2016.

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