Zac Moffatt, digital director for Mitt Romney’s failed presidential bid, is emerging as a leading scapegoat for the Republican loss.
Conservative media voices such as Erick Erickson at Red State and Mike Flynn at Breitbart are beating up on Moffatt on Twitter and in the press for what they say was an inept and overpriced digital effort.
On Wednesday night, Flynn unleashed a stream of tweets articulating what some veteran Republican digital operatives have been hinting at. “@ZacMoffatt made millions while he screwed the country because of his incompetence. Can we please agree that he is done in politics?”
In a conversation with National Journal on Thursday, Moffatt joked that maybe it was time for him to stop reading Twitter. But he’s not apologizing for the campaign, or the work of the digital team and his firm Targeted Victory.
“I know we ran the most sophisticated and aggressive digital campaign in the history of Republican politics,” Moffatt said. He cited a litany of postmortem metrics: 59 million volunteer contacts, 38 million visitors to the campaign website, a sharp rise in small-dollar donations, and $65 million raised online in October alone.
But the metric that’s getting the most attention from Moffatt’s critics is the $17 million paid to his firm, Targeted Victory, which does not include his own salary and bonuses and those paid to digital staffers employed by the campaign. Moffatt says that the money went to online advertising, online infrastructure, renting e-mail lists, prospecting for new donors, and other outreach efforts. “There are costs in building out a massive digital presence,” he said. The digital effort also helped build "assets that will be in place to help the Republican Party for years to come," he said.
Moffatt has also been taking the heat for technical glitches that marred the performance of the Romney campaign’s much-vaunted online vote-counting application Orca, which was pegged as a way to track the success of their get-out-the-vote efforts and marshal resources where the vote was lagging. Moffatt argued that the success or failure of Orca didn’t affect the outcome of the election. The Romney campaign has said that the money and direction for Orca came from the political team, not digital.
It’s not just conservative media types—there’s skepticism among Republican digital professionals about the Romney effort. Eric Frenchman, a search and online display-ad specialist at Campaign Solutions, said, “They didn’t look like they had experience in running digital advertising." Frenchman, who worked on Republican Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008 and bought online media for Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., in 2012, was critical of the Romney campaign's efforts to pivot in real time to take advantage of events that broke in their favor.
“When Romney really destroyed President Obama in the first debate, they had no changes to their website,” Frenchman said.
The Romney campaign was also slow to break advertising on the addition of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to the ticket. A Google search for Ryan’s name in the first few hours after the nomination was announced led to an Obama campaign ad.
Peter Pasi, a search specialist who worked on former Sen. Rick Santorum’s bid for the Republican nomination, says the entire party needs to look at overhauling its data infrastructure. It’s a problem that doesn’t reside with one consultant or one company, but one that goes back to before the 2008 cycle. “Republicans feel like they’ve been kicked in the teeth twice now on digital.”
“The reality doesn’t match the hype,” Pasi said. “The Romney spokespeople talked a big game and didn’t play it. The Obama people played a big game and didn’t talk about it.”
Its hard to make the case that digital advertising was dispositive in the election, considering the vast sums spent on television advertising. Romney's campaign team never seemed to be able to shake off the narrative of the candidate as representing the forces of predatory finance which the Obama team spun out in a steady stream of television spots in battleground states.
There’s no arguing that the Republicans were outgunned online. Obama’s team spent about $52 million on digital media and advertising, according to the most recent Federal Election Commission data, compared with $26 million for Romney.
Still, Moffatt stands by his campaign. “We had the resources we needed to be competitive,” he said, adding, "We're very happy with the way the program ran digitally."
The GOP appears poised to take a fresh look at how to do digital. In a confidential presentation dated on Wednesday, the Republican National Committee announced plans to “conduct independent reviews of our ground game, data resources, and digital program” and “create a team to take an in-depth look at what Obama did.”