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How Obama won the internet

February 6, 2014, at 5:19 PM

In the latest episode of Political Wire's podcast, we chatted with Teddy Goff, who masterminded the Obama campaign's digital efforts. Goff discusses how the internet age is reshaping the ways in which young people get their political information, as well as how campaigns organize, turn out the vote, and fundraise.

Here are five takeaways:

1. Young people get their information differently, so the Obama campaign sought their support differently: People no longer have to settle for what's on TV or in the newspapers for their information. Now they can seek it out from their preferred sources and get it from friends on social networking sites. The Obama campaign, Goff said, found ways to take advantage of this trend, which has occurred especially among young voters. In addition to studying which email subject lines worked the best and using data to find undecided voters, the campaign also tailored its social-media outreach to young people's personalities. Young people are choosy about where they get their information and skeptical of marketing efforts and political institutions more generally, Goff said. That meant that the Obama campaign wasn't simply competing with Team Romney, but with friends of a young voter for 30 seconds or a minute of that voter's time. Team Obama had to fine-tune the content of its messages to get young people's attention at all, and encouraged young people already supporting Obama to share campaign-related news and links with their friends.

2. 2014 congressional and gubernatorial campaigns can't go full Obama on the technology: Whereas the Obama campaign had the money to support hundreds of tech-savvy staffers, campaigns for the House, Senate, governor's mansions, and statehouse seats won't have that luxury, Goff said. Still, these campaigns can and will use technology to their advantage, as American society becomes more tech-savvy and as TV and print media lose their previous dominance. Email will remain the single most valuable fundraising tool, Goff said, especially for these relatively resource-strapped campaigns. Facebook and Twitter continue as the dominant social-networking outreach platforms, and data analytics is increasingly important to identifying persuadable voters. Said Goff: "Any Senate or House race or governor’s race that does all that pretty well is going to be at significant advantage over any other race." New technological tools are coming about all the time, but there's no sign yet that any specific new technology or social-media platform is taking off in a campaign context, he said.

3. President Obama's incumbency edge in 2012 didn't stem only from the bully pulpit. When seeking re-election, the president has the ability to use his office to advance his candidacy, whether through the bully pulpit or with powerful visuals such as Air Force One. But many political observers ignore Obama's incumbency edge in campaigning, Goff argued. Obama's team knew how to organize and turn out voters, and raise money. "We had done it not just a couple of times," he said. "We had done it 51 times in the primary and again in the general. So we really had a lot of experience." Team Obama's campaigning edge extended to technology; the president already had tens of millions of Facebook fans and Twitter followers, as well as a similarly large voter email database. No candidate in 2016 will have anywhere close to that kind of technological head-start, Goff noted.

4. To target potential voters, behavioral data is more valuable than demographic data alone: Although demographic groups tend to vote certain ways on average, there's plenty of variation among each group's members. What's more valuable is the vast troves of behavioral data that the internet has unlocked. This information is so valuable because it actually offers insight on what people read, share with friends, and enjoy, Goff said. He added: "Those behaviors are a lot more dispositive and, I think, a lot more telling and a lot more predictive...than anything you can model out or infer from survey data, or often that you can even get from asking them." For these reasons, the Obama campaign took behavioral information even more seriously than demographic information, Goff said.

5. When it comes to building good websites, campaigning and governing don't have that much in common: Many people have wondered how a president whose campaigns had used technology so well could have an administration that mangled the rollout of ObamaCare's online insurance marketplace. But governing and campaigning are two entirely different animals when it comes to using technology. Whereas campaigns can hire some of the best engineering and development talent with relative ease, government procurement laws make recruitment much tougher and more drawn-out. "The guy at the top of the organization is the same," Goff said. "But not much could be less alike than building tools for online fundraising, building tools to get people to share something on Facebook, and building this much more complex, much more sophisticated tool that, among other things, had a lot of dependency on other kinds of software."

Listen to the conversation here:

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