Did the Obama Campaign Matter?

President Obama’s 2012 reelection victory was immediately followed by reporting and analysis on his turnout operation, which surpassed 2008’s in scope and scale. The Obama campaign devoted millions to sophisticated polling, modeling, and data collection. It was able to pinpoint particular demographic groups, and target them with mail, advertisements, volunteers and everything else in their arsenal. The general assumption from everyone—including myself—was that this operation was integral to Obama’s success.

Or was it?

At The Monkey Cage, political scientists Ryan Enos and Anthony Fowler find that Obama’s voter mobilization effort—while more sophisticated than any other operation in election history—was only slightly more effective than Mitt Romney’s. Here are the details:

While registered Democrats and Republicans in these media markets (7.5 million and 7.0 million individuals, respectively) were heavily targeted by the Obama and Romney campaigns, others may not have been.  Among these select groups, we estimate massive campaign effects of 15.4 percentage points for registered Democrats and 13.8 percentage points for Republicans. These numbers suggest impressively effective mobilization efforts by BOTH the Obama and Romney campaigns. […]

Despite all the celebration of the Obama campaign’s technological and other superiority, their campaign only had a 1.6 percentage point advantage over Romney in turning out party registrants

We desperately want events to matter. If Obama won, we want to believe it was because of his organizational skills, his personal appeal, or some other fact of his campaign. But the more we look, the more it seems that this election was determined from the start; the forecasters and election models predicted a small Obama advantage, and he won with exactly that.

It’s not that presidential campaigns don’t matter, it’s that they aren’t as important to election outcomes as we think. Their effect on other things—agendas, issue priorities, and general political dynamics—are still strong.


When reading an analysis it is important to ask "compared to what?" The authors of this study are coy on the point: "Of course, we don’t know whether Democratic registrants are inherently more difficult to mobilize than Republican registrants" Of course, we do know that Democrats are inherently more difficult to mobilize than Republicans, this is observable both historically and through demographic analysis (young and minority voters are notoriously hard to turn out). A Democratic campaign that not only matches Republican turnout effects in battleground states, but beats them by 1.6 points, is remarkable. Further, much of the Obama field effort was focused on registering new Democrats, this study does not account for those effects. The comments on the post are also illuminating.

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