A first-class ground operation in 2012 required leading-edge technology, and here also an early gap opened between Obama and Romney.
The goal was to create the political equivalent of a Facebook or Twitter, a platform that would change the way presidential campaigns are run. And Obama’s team found just the man for the job: a 34-year-old programming whiz named Harper Reed, who got his start as an 11-year-old pecking on an Apple II and had never held a top job in a political campaign. With his wildly flowing black hair, big earrings, and bigger glasses, he was not long on humility — his website proclaimed that “I am pretty awesome” — but his talents were real.
As Reed assembled his team, he insisted on being given leeway to hire some of the best techies in the country, from Facebook, Craigslist, Twitter. Moreover, he insisted the team be largely internal, rather than have the enterprise be divided up among outside consultants.
The group was haunted by the failure of a similar venture in Obama’s 2008 campaign, when a get-out-the-vote computer program called Houdini crashed and could have cost the election if the race had been closer. This time, Reed and his team created a successor that they named Gordon, after the person who punched Houdini in the stomach shortly before the magician died.
Separately, the Obama team created a system called Narwahl, named after an Arctic whale, which linked disparate computer programs together. Narwahl and Gordon would be tested repeatedly in exercises that Obama’s team called “game day.” Every imaginable failure would be thrown at the systems — hacker attacks, database meltdowns, Internet failures — and the team would be challenged to write up a manual for how to deal with each disaster. It was, they said, more fun than the fantasy war game Dungeons & Dragons.
Zac Moffatt, Romney’s digital director, did not have the luxury of Reed’s time or resources. Moffatt came from the world of politics, had worked at the Republican National Committee and had long believed Romney would be the best GOP candidate for president.
Moffatt played catch-up from the start. He had 14 people working for him in the primaries and then, around May 1, he submitted a general election plan that required at least 110 people and would eventually have 160. Obama was far ahead. Moffatt recalled his assignment in daunting terms: “Can we do 80 percent of what the Obama campaign is doing, in 20 percent of the time, at 10 percent of the cost?”
Moffatt’s team nonetheless managed to create big projects on short notice. For example, one of the highest priorities was a Facebook app that would enable the Romney campaign to locate voters who otherwise could not be found by telephone. By some estimates, half of younger voters do not have a landline or cannot be reached by cellphone. Three weeks before Election Day, the app was unveiled by the campaign and downloaded by 40,000 Romney supporters.
There was only one problem. Months earlier, Obama’s campaign had developed a similar app, which had been downloaded by 1 million people.
David Axelrod, Obama’s senior strategist, felt he had been given a gift.
For months, he had worried that the Romney campaign would find a way to present its candidate in a compelling fashion. But as far as Axelrod could tell, the Romney campaign had no such strategy.
“I questioned why they didn’t spend more time and energy early defining Romney in a fuller way so people could identify with him,” Axelrod said in a postelection interview.
“One of my conclusions is so much of his life was kind of walled off from use. His faith is important to him, but they didn’t want to talk about that. His business was important, but they didn’t want to talk about that much. His governorship was important to him, but his signature achievement [health care] was unhelpful to them in the Republican primary. My feeling is you have to build a candidacy on the foundation of biography. That is what authenticates your message. I was always waiting for that happen.”
Axelrod jumped at the opening. In a major gamble, the Obama campaign moved $65 million in advertising money that had been budgeted for September and October into June, enabling the president to unleash a series of attacks that would define Romney at a time when the Republican would have little money to respond.
From Axelrod’s viewpoint, the timing was perfect. Romney had been weakened by assaults from fellow GOP candidates during the primaries. Romney alienated many Hispanics by suggesting that illegal immigrant families should “self-deport,” and he said he had been a “severely conservative” governor, hurting his strategy to move to the middle for the general election.Continued...