This was the first cycle the Obama campaign’s tools were scaled to down-ballot races and there were mixed results. Endangered New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen managed a narrow Senate victory after her campaign saturated its target audiences with coordinated messaging through TV, mail, online and canvassing.
But for most Democrats digital wasn’t enough to stave off another crushing midterm defeat. In fact, it was Republicans who got to boast of using the Obama playbook on their path to success. To understand what’s next for consultants in 2015, here’s a look back on the stories that shook the campaign world this year.
6) Polling mistakes
It wasn’t Dewey defeats Truman, but it was close. Eric Cantor was so sure of brushing aside challenger Dave Brat in Virginia’s 7th district primary that he spent the morning of the June 10 at a Capitol Hill Starbucks meeting with lobbyists. Cantor’s pollster McLaughlin & Associates had him up 34 points before the former House majority leader lost to Brat by 11 points.
That wasn’t the only glaring miss for pollsters this cycle. In Arkansas, Sen. Tom Cotton (R) was only up six points in survey averages and he won by 17. Kansas also saw a small single-digit margin turn into a GOP rout as did Kentucky, where polling had Mitch McConnell only for the Republican to win by 15. The glaring misses have some pollsters calling for new survey practices. “Even in a low-turnout environment, we’ve found that 10 to 15 percent of this year’s voters will have sat out the previous midterm, depending on the state, so it’s important to look at the fuller picture that a hybrid approach of traditional polling and analytics can provide,” GOP pollster Patrick Ruffini writes.
5) Blue Texas
The Lone Star State was supposed to be the proving ground for how the Obama campaign’s tactics could be scaled for down-ballot candidates and state parties. The experiment was a miserable failure. Despite stepping into the national spotlight, gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis performed some 283,000 votes worse than her Democratic predecessor. And that was after Jeremy Bird, the famed field guru, put Texas at the center of an effort to build up the Democrats’ grassroots. The takeaway? Sometimes culture matters more than campaigns.
4) McCutcheon’s the limit
The Supreme Court decision abolished the FEC’s aggregate contribution limits and was supposed to help usher in the era of the super donor. After all, this elite group of check writers — only 591 contributors gave $46,200 to all federal candidates in 2012 — no longer had the “maxed out” excuse when the fundraisers called. The 2014 midterms were initially projected to be the most expensive on record thanks, in part, to Alabama electrical engineer Shaun McCutcheon’s court victory. But they ended up totally roughly $3.67 billion, about what was spent in 2010. Ultimately, the impact of this decision may be felt more in the years to come. Instead of upending the campaign finance infrastructure the way Citizens United did in 2010, McCutcheon was more akin to the removal of a block from the bottom of a Jenga tower. Eventually the tower’s going to come down, it’s just a matter of when.
3) The first shot in an IP war
In July, Audience Partners was approved for a patent on what it dubbed the “holy grail” of voter file matching technology. Rivals derided it as akin to patenting door knocking. Sure, says Jeff Dittus, co-founder and CEO at Audience Partners, “direct mail has been here, door knocking has been here using the voter registration file, but the way that you present an ad in a real time environment on the Internet across all these ecosystems is an invention that we created.” The effectiveness of Audience Partners’ technology aside, their patent and the visceral reaction too are a sign of things to come. Campaigns increasingly are relying on new technology. As consultants rush to patent their innovations, conflict seems inevitable.
2) The passing of the torch
This year saw the passing of some pioneers in the consulting world. Names like Arnold Pinkney, Michel Bongrand and David Garth were just a few of the campaign innovators who were eulogized in 2014. Still, a new generation is right behind them. C&E’s Influencers 50 and Rising Stars were stacked with young consultants now forging their reputations and pushing the industry forward technologically.
1) The 2014 midterms
It was the year the Obama campaign’s tactics were scaled to down-ballot races — by many Republicans. And it wasn’t just the online targeting tools the GOP borrowed. Democrats were also hit for their fidelity to President Obama, a message borrowed from their 2006 midterm success again George W. Bush’s GOP. In North Carolina, for instance, Sen. Kay Hagan (D) was hit for voting with President Obama “95 percent of the time.” It was a message taken directly from the incumbent’s own race against former Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.).
This cycle won’t be famous for making what was old new again. It’s likely to spur greater innovation, according to Andrew Bleeker, who heads the digital firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. “Smart campaigns are going to keep asking the tough questions and are going to keep innovating. If anything, I think what 2014 is going to teach me and my firm is that we need to keep pushing.”