Sep 26, 2012 · 8 minutes

There must have been a memo in the Romney campaign that “Modern Family” is the official TV comedy of the election. First, the Mittster himself told the ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that the Emmy-winning comedy is his “TV guilty pleasure," and then his wife Ann announced that it is her favorite show. So the conspiracy thickens when Romney’s digital director tells me that the comedy is in part responsible for the campaign’s digital advertising strategy.

“The reason we moved to an on-demand advertising model is because my mom came to my house and wanted to watch ‘Modern Family’ and didn't care that it wasn't Wednesday,” says Zac Moffatt over the phone from Boston. “She did it, because she knew it was on my DVR box. We just live different lives now.”

If ever there were an illustration of just how pronounced the shift towards digital has been since the last Presidential election, that’s it right there. One need look no further than Zac Moffatt’s mother.

But of course, the Romney campaign did look further, just to be sure. What they found was that digital can no longer be a fringe player in political campaigns, because everyone is online. It has reached the point where the Internet is competitive even with TV as a way of reaching voters.

“We made a huge determination last year that we did not believe that this entire election could be won just on television. There was this belief that people are not watching live television anymore,” says Moffatt, who at 33 is already a veteran of political campaigns, as well as a seasoned entrepreneur. Prior to joining the Romney team, he co-founded political tools startup Targeted Victory and has served on Republican campaigns in different capacities since 2001.

The Romney campaign commissioned two bipartisan studies that showed one in three voters hadn’t watched live television in the last week, other than sports. “That means you have to change your entire outreach model to reflect that,” says Moffatt, who speaks in long paragraphs without taking breaths. That, apparently, is the talking speed of a man who spends six hours in conference calls and meetings every day. “We call them ‘on-demanders’ or ‘time shifters,' people who are consuming on their terms. These are people with Hulu, Netflix, DVR boxes. And so we as a result have built pretty dynamic models of online advertising to account for this.”

When the 2012 election is over, predicts Moffatt, the big story on the campaign side is going to be that paid media resources have moved from list-building and fundraising to persuasion and mobilization. That means his digital team gets real dollars to play with – although he will only disclose that his budget is “big” – to the point where it’s comparable in some areas to the power television has. “We're not looking to replace television. We're looking to augment and amplify television to be more successful.”

At the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, tech people I talked to approvingly described Obama's digital team as a “startup within a startup." Rather than outsource the building of various tools to other companies, it has developed everything in-house.

When I put that claim to Moffatt, however, he protests that the opposite is true. The Obama campaign, he asserts, is more like government. “They've pulled everything together and determined that they can do everything best,” he says. “We actually function like a startup. We are finding the best minds and best companies, but if something doesn't work it's easy for us to iterate and pivot into a new direction.” By relying on in-house tools, you can very quickly get lumped with cumbersome legacy items that becomes costly over time. “For me, it looks much more like central planning than it does anything else."

Certainly, Moffatt’s team has made strong use of startups. It works with for fundraising, Tout for shortform video, Square for field donations, and Eventbrite for, well, guess. Moffatt says Facebook, Twitter, and Google have all been “amazing” partners, to the point where people from those companies are almost like embedded staff on the campaign. The hardest decision for Moffatt to make, however, was signing up to use Optimizely for “A/B” testing. Optimizely was started by former Google employee Dan Siroker, who was director of analytics for Obama’s 2008 campaign. “Once I got over myself, I was able to do that,” Moffatt says with a wry laugh.

To some degree, the Romney campaign has been forced to work with lots of partners because of a race against time. The day Romney won the Republican primaries, the campaign had a total of 87 staff, while Obama had 750. While Obama’s team knew three years ago they would be back in the campaign game, Romney’s team has had only four months. “We had to build something that was flexible enough to take that into consideration, yet still provide infrastructure that was scalable and sturdy enough to hit this point,” explains Moffatt. “We're growing exponentially, and the only way we could do that successfully would be to be flexible."

While digital’s role in a Presidential campaign encompasses everything from online advertising to data analytics and incessant email blasts, the part that’s most visible to the public is social media. On that front, Romney has had mixed results. I’ve written before that, as a candidate, Romney doesn’t translate well to social media, but that’s no fault of Moffatt’s. Romney’s social media problems can all be traced back to the candidate himself and his various injudicious public statements, from insulting the Brits on the eve of the Olympics to his dismissal of 47 percent of voters as welfare moochers. Every statement has been amplified by the instant and unfiltered reactions of the crowds on Twitter and Facebook.

When it comes to social media, Moffatt says that “vanity metrics” such as how many Tweets-per-minute Obama’s Democratic National Convention speech generated, or how many Twitter followers the President has, don’t matter. What's most important is what's being said. Moffatt stresses that he’s more concerned about “engagement” than sheer numbers, because it gives a better idea of how the candidates’ messages are resonating with the public.

The average Romney Tweet, says Moffatt, gets Retweeted three times more than Obama’s. That claim, however, is difficult to verify. Charles MacGuinness of suggets it's wrong, although he found that the average Romney follower is 50 percent more likely to Retweet Romney than the average Obama follower is to Retweet Obama.

On Facebook, Romney comes close to matching Obama on the “People Talking About This" metric, with a score of 1,866,063 against Obama’s 2,172,550 (as of yesterday). What’s most encouraging for Romney is that his Facebook engagement level is proportionately much higher than Obama’s, considering the President has 28.8 million “Likes” compared to the Republican’s 7.38 million. But then again, the “talking about” metric is a crude one, measuring only volume and not sentiment. We have no idea what those people are saying about either candidate.

A more useful measure is Topsy’s Twitter Political Index, which makes a sport of gauging sentiment. On that front, the candidates are more evenly matched. The score changes daily, but last night Obama had a score of 25, up four points from the day before, compared to Romney’s 24, up seven. The historical index (pictured below) shows the candidates trading places numerous times over the course of the campaign.

Moffatt can, however, claim a clear victory in making the Republican National Convention more social than the Democratic convention. By partnering with Mass Relevance, the Republicans were the only party to allow Tweets from home to be displayed on stage. The campaign also took down Romney’s website and moved everything to YouTube for the duration of the convention. “If the Democrats had done it, and we hadn’t, that's all everyone would be talking about,” says Moffatt, more with bemusement than resentment. “But instead they were like ‘Oh well, you did it. Great. Box checked,’ and moved on."

“We’ve completely embraced this, but it gets lost on the fact that there was more volume in the Democratic convention,” he continues. “My argument would be that of course there’s going to be more volume in the Democratic convention. They're the incumbent. In four years there'll be more volume on the Republican side.” He also notes that during the conventions, only one speaker had his Twitter sentiment score go down: Barack Obama.

Within the Romney campaign, digital’s importance has never been called into question. Two weeks ago, the campaign passed 20 million voter contacts – that’s eight times as many phone calls as were placed at the same time during the John McCain campaign in 2008. Digital, in other words, has proven its scale and flexibility beyond doubt. “Those two have married up to allow us to produce an 800 percent lift, which is really kind of the impressive point,” Moffatt says. “People are always like, ‘Oh does it work?’ I mean, yeah, it works – that’s about as tangible an example as you can see.”

2012 might well turn out to be the year that political campaigns finally stopped asking that question. Moffatt says it is now clear that campaigns have to reserve a seat for digital at every important table. “You have to make structural changes to be successful online,” he says. “It's not a tactical thing at the margins. You have to fundamentally restructure the way an organization works, and it has to almost embrace digital first.”

[Photo via Flickr user Sandira]