Deconstructing the “Shattered” Attack on Campaign Innovation

The first draft of the 2016 Clinton campaign defeat has been written, and it contains a dangerously incorrect narrative casting doubt on pioneering campaign innovations like data analytics.

Certainly, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign from the duo of political reporters Amie Parnes and Jonathan Allen is well worth the read — the two authors are clearly well-sourced and well-versed in campaign dynamics and they weave an absolutely compelling tale. Particularly if you are a political junkie, you won’t be able to put Shattered down.

But if you are involved in the ongoing debate about how to innovate Democratic political campaigns, you will see the blind sourced quotes from the campaign traditionalists dominating the generally silent political reformers. That’s a one-sided narrative that needs to be corrected.

In this hot-off-the-presses history, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook is cast as the whiz kid who relied too much on new campaign tactics like the rigorous use of analytics. His antagonists, and they appear to be numerous, offer up blind quote after blind quote blaming the Clinton loss on the innovative nature of the campaign. They essentially come right out and say it — if only there had been more paid TV, more paid direct mail, more traditional campaign tactics. If only they could have run the campaign the old way.

Fellow political consultants will read through the lines. The people who make TV ads and design and print direct mail (our firm does quite a lot of both, by the way) have a financial incentive in the traditional structures. A campaign that relies just on a barrage of paid media makes a boatload of money for the paid media consultants.

In recent years new analytics tools have helped target media and campaign efforts to just those voters most likely to be persuaded — and that potentially means campaigns that are dramatically more efficient.

Traditional campaigns blanket nearly every voter with broadcast television ads, dead forests of direct mail, endless robo-calls and a wall-to-wall overlay of generic web ads.

Innovators like Mook have started to use data analytics tools (which are not new, just new to political campaigns) to “narrow cast” messages more effectively. This kind of targeting can mean much better use of limited campaign dollars, and more effective messages because, when you really know your audience, a campaign or cause can speak in more meaningful terms to that audience.

The innovators were slowly gaining credence after the twin victories of President Obama — in part because the analytics-driven approach had the validation of victory. But the traditionalists were far from convinced. And now that supposedly faulty analytics are being blamed for the Clinton loss, the traditionalists seem to be using vehicles like Shattered to drive home their case.

As in any debate between serious people who fundamentally share a common goal — both sides have a good case to make.

Yes, analytics can be powerful in aiding decision-making, but the algorithms are far from perfect and they can’t replace actual human analysis (not that they necessarily did in the Clinton campaign). Most importantly, the relatively simple calculations are really only as good as the data being fed to them — with more data from multiple sources always preferred. Perhaps one of the decisions the Clinton team might regret is skimping on traditional phone polling rather than a general reliance on the shorter, and cheaper, analytics polls used to feed the data models.

But that is a detail in a wider debate. And the debate, as it is being framed, is undermining the necessary need to reform how Democratic campaigns are run — so they cost less and can do more — particularly more of the face-to-face campaigning that we know works best to change minds and drive turnout.

The hard reality is that Donald Trump defeated both the entire Republican establishment and then the Democratic nominee all the while taking on a unified mainstream media. He didn’t win because the Clinton campaign made a small mistake, or a series of small mistakes. He won because he tapped into a deep anger in this nation that the broader establishment wouldn’t, or couldn’t, address. He had a message of change in a change year. Clinton, defined in stone by three decades in the public eye, was the defender of the status quo, albeit a highly qualified one.

Robby Mook, or at least the character he becomes in this otherwise compelling book, is cast as the villain who relied on new analytics tools rather than old-fashioned gut feel and barrages of paid media.

The opposite is the reality. It takes courage to stand up for a new way of doing business in the highly-traditionalist Democratic campaign environment. And Mook had that courage.

We need more Robby Mooks in Democratic politics — more managers, consultants and operatives willing to acknowledge that the traditional alchemy of campaigning (“Trust me and keep writing checks!”) needs to be replaced by accountability and basic science.

Shattered is a great read. Be sure to pick it up. But as to this one particular narrative thread about analytics, and the broader issue of reforming campaign operations and tools — #ImWithMook.

Eric Jaye runs both a “traditional” campaign media firm, Storefront Political Media, and he is the co-founder of two firms offering campaign technology innovations, SpeakEasyPolitical and Storefront Digital, as well as the political audience aggregation site, IAgreetoSee.com.