What exactly do you spend your days thinking about when you're a digital director of a presidential campaign that's on track to win the Republican nomination? Zac Moffatt, 32, leads the digital side of the Mitt Romney campaign. He moved up to Boston last spring with his wife after a number of years in Virginia and jobs throughout Republican politics, including work on Bush-Cheney '04, with the Republican National Committee, and a variety of high- and low-profile races with his firm, Targeted Victory. We talked recently about the shortcomings of judging digital by the same sort of raw metrics we apply to, say fundraising (see, The Washington Post's @MentionMachine ), about how much of tech politics is happening behind the scenes, and about what digital success looks like.
"It's amazing to me that people are talking about social media, about counting numbers," observes Moffatt, "and yet aren't getting on ballots in primary states." When it came to qualifying Romney for the Virginia primary to be held in March, "the political team knew two months in advance what we wanted to do," he says. "We sent out e-mails segmented to specific areas, with different senders tied to each area. When people came in through Twitter, we moved them through the funnel into signing up an account with MyMitt," the campaign's internal mobilization tool, "and we followed up with a phone call."
That top-to-bottom, proactive, thoughtful application of digital tools to political necessities is what everyone talks about doing, says Moffatt. But not all campaigns are. It helps, he says, that he's senior staff, with the same access inside the campaign as the political or communications director. One group of folks known for a similar approach: the Obama campaign, which Moffatt is quick to compliment -- with a dash of expectation-setting. "Obviously, they're very fortunate," he says. "They have a huge head start because they've been building it for six years."
WHAT IT TAKES TO GET STARTED
Romney '12 started from scratch, says Moffatt. Challenging, yes, but not without its advantages, such as having no legacy of circa-2007 tools and thinking to build from. Of course, that presented endless choices to be made on the compressed schedule of a presidential campaign. Moffatt describes his strategy as creating for the short-term with one eye constantly on the long game. "We're building the perfect digital and offline model to make it through the primary process," he says. "It wouldn't make much sense for me to build out a national program if we didn't make it through the primaries. And if we make it through the primaries, we're going to run a very different campaign in the general."
The nature of a presidential campaign can create tensions for website designers and architects. For example, the "carousel," a design feature popular with many sites today that presents a shifting array of images and topics on which to focus, can be used to speak to true believers, potential converts, influential observers, or some mix of all. But the choices get even more difficult when it comes to increasingly important mobile technologies. "Mobile is about what you can strip down to the most basic and still do the most for the most people," forcing decisions about whom to appeal to in that reduced real estate.
And the unique chronology of an American presidential race -- both incredibly short and sometimes painfully long -- leads to choices made under the gun that stick around for the duration. Does your call-from-home tool connect you right to a voter, as Romney's does? Or does it rely upon the volunteer to make the call, as Obama's does? There are legal and data implications baked into each, says Moffatt. "You're making certain structural determinations," he says, "about what CMS [content management system] to build on, how you're going to run your ad program, what you're design process is going to be, how you're going to do your list segmentations, all that, that you're going to have to live with for the next year."
Some of those structural choices, Moffatt suggests, reflect more of a commitment to the long-haul than others. MittRomney.com runs on Drupal, a robust open-source system. A close observer of WordPress, the blogging and CMS tool, noted back in May that six Republican presidential candidates were then running on that platform: Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Gary Johnson, Ron Paul, Rick Perry, and Buddy Roemer. Meanwhile, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Jon Huntsman joined Romney on Drupal. "Building a website on WordPress is awesome for a congressional or statewide race," says Moffatt. "But I don't know how you would run a presidential built on that. If people had done better, I think they'd have to rebuild everything in the next two months."