By Jim Rutenberg, New York Times, November 12, 2012
It was called “the Optimizer,” and, strategists for President Obama say it is how he beat a better-financed Republican opposition in the advertising war.
Culling never-before-used data about viewing habits, and combining it with more personal information about the voters the campaign was trying to reach and persuade than was ever before available, the system allowed Mr. Obama’s team to direct advertising with a previously unheard-of level of efficiency, strategists from both sides agree.
“Future campaigns ignore the targeting strategy of the Obama campaign of 2012 at their peril,” said Ken Goldstein, the president of Kantar Media/CMAG, a media monitoring firm that tracked and analyzed political advertising for both campaigns. “This was an unprecedented marrying of detailed information on viewing habits and political predispositions.”
One of the biggest emerging stories about the campaign that has ended is how Mr. Obama’s team used information and technology to outmatch and outwit a galvanized and incredibly well-financed opposition.
And in the days since the election new details are emerging about just how outmatched the Republicans were on the technology side, prompting a partywide re-examination of how to avoid a repeat and regain the once-fearsome tactical advantages they held in the era of President George W. Bush. They acknowledge they have their work cut out for themselves.
Romney campaign officials have said the computer-driven operation they built to monitor turnout, and to push supporters to polls in areas that were falling below vote levels needed for victory, crashed and became inoperative for a prolonged period as voting was under way.
The system was meant to combat the far more sophisticated version that Mr. Obama’s team had built over years. But Mr. Romney was distracted and financially depleted by his long primary season, and even with perfect execution, both sides agree, he never would have had the time or finances to catch up.
With so much more time to prepare, Mr. Obama’s polling and “analytics” department collected so much information about the electorate that it knew far more about which sorts of voters were going to turn out — and where — than the Romney campaign and most public pollsters.
But in between identifying likely supporters and successfully delivering them to the polls there was an intensive effort to send them a constant stream of messages devised to keep wavering 2008 Obama supporters from succumbing to Mr. Romney’s effort to win them over, and to get unwavering supporters excited about voting.
That was where “the Optimizer” came in.
In essence, said Larry Grisolano, who helped lead the development of the system, it created a new set of ratings based on the political leanings of categories of people the Obama campaign was interested in reaching, allowing the campaign to buy its advertising on political terms as opposed to traditional television industry terms.
“We were able to create a set of ratings based on a model of our target voters, as opposed to the broader categories that are kind of defined by traditional advertising ratings,” he said.
Erik Smith, another senior strategist, said a decision by “super PACS” supporting Mr. Romney to hold off on their first major anti-Obama advertising push until well after the primaries had given the team extra time to develop its system.
Through its vast array of information collected via its e-mail list, Facebook and millions of door-to-door discussions conducted by volunteers in swing states — and fed into the campaign database — the campaign devised a ranking scale for voters ranging from likeliest to support Mr. Obama to least likely.
Then the advertising team worked backward to figure out what sorts of programs likely and undecided voters were liable to watch, and when. It did so using not only traditional Nielsen Media Research data but also newly available information from set-top cable boxes that gave a far more detailed sense of how the groups watched television, and, more important, commercials.
The answers led to advertising purchases that the campaign might not have made, especially as it pursued undecided voters who did not regularly go to traditional sources for news.
So it was, said Jim Margolis, a senior advertising strategist, that the campaign bought more late-night advertising time than it otherwise would have on “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon,” “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” ESPN and, most surprisingly, TV Land, the basic cable network devoted to reruns of old programs.
In the case of TV Land, Mr. Margolis said, the campaign was seeking to reach “folks who may not be as political, may not be deciding until later.”
“A lot of these people are lower-information voters,” he said, “not necessarily tuned to politics and watching a little more programming that is out of the main lane of what most of us think of.”
In the past, Mr. Margolis said, the campaign would have been less likely to advertise as much on a network like TV Land because it knew less about its audiences based on the information available to general commercial advertisers.
Advertisers generally buy programming in a standard set of demographic measurements. Those seeking to reach viewers ages 25 to 54 will place commercials in local news; those seeking to reach people over 65 will tend to buy advertising time on 7 p.m. shows like “Jeopardy!”; and those seeking to reach young upscale women ages 18 to 49 will direct their advertising to prime time shows like “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Political campaigns have tended to use the same categories, traditionally advertising most heavily in news and pre-prime-time game shows, where the most reliable voters can generally be found. Mr. Romney’s campaign largely did this until the final weeks of the race, when it increasingly relied on cable as well.
But by then, Mr. Obama’s campaign had been on cable for months, focusing on niche networks and programs that did not necessarily deliver large audiences but, as Mr. Grisolano put it, did provide the right ones.
Mr. Obama’s team said all year that its technological innovations would count only in a close race, which is exactly what it found itself in.
“All of this stuff only matters in the margins,” said Mr. Goldstein, of Kantar Media/CMAG. “But if having an alternative ratings system enabled you to put more messages on target, and you have a bunch of states being decided by one or two percentage points, that can matter.”