12/12/2012 02:48 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2013

The 2012 Election: 'It's the Relationship, Stupid'

"By mid October, the Obama team had personally... spoken with each voter 5 times. Not 'sent a letter' but actually spoken, face-to-face, or via phone, on average 5 times!" Tomi T. Ahonen,, describing personal contacts of targeted voters.

Politics aside, one of the defining stories of the 2012 presidential election was how sales and marketing relationship-building efforts delivered unexpected, targeted voter turnout. Even the Romney campaign was in awe of the Obama "ground game." While much has been made about Obama's sophisticated use of Narwhal, its second-generation voter-information technology system, and, "Orca," Romney's ambitious database-monitoring and voter-activation system (which crashed on election-day) -- the game-changer was the Obama campaign's capability to systematically build local, personal relationships that translated into votes.

Business, like politics, is about getting votes -- customer votes. In today's sophisticated world of technology and ever-expanding communication channels, there are many tools, initiatives and resources to consider. Internal debates swirl about investing in advertising vs. sales efforts, social media vs. face-to-face, more branches vs. more customer data or mobile technology. And, it is a major struggle to integrate them all. The 2012 presidential campaigns faced similar investment issues regarding how to invest an unprecedented war chest of $2 billion (a billion dollars for each campaign which combined averaged roughly $16 per voter for 124 million votes cast, plus the $18.50 per vote Romney spent in the primary). While their strategies, methods, and tools are common to business, it seems the Obama campaign was exceptional in plotting and executing a sustained four-year relationship-building strategy, especially in swing states like Ohio.

First, their "voter" (customer) information system focused on local, relationship building. It had many advantages: it was launched in the 2008 election and was proven, had great scale, powerful polling and analytical capabilities, and it did not crash on Election Day. However what made it most unique, was how it delivered on its long-term, relationship-building vision: to translate voter insights into relationship-building actions locally (more on that shortly). The Obama campaign started collecting and refining this data in 2008 and by 2012 it was quite refined. Tomi T. Ahonen in a fascinating analysis here [] describes the early investment this way, "Romney's team consistently every month spent most of its massive millions in campaign funds on TV ads. Obama's team not one month had its biggest spend in TV advertising. It biggest spend every month was the mysterious Project Narwhal."

Second, they developed a prolific local, "relationship-building" distribution system. In the key battle-ground state of Ohio, Obama had nearly 100 more local offices than Romney. Slate quoted an admiring top Romney aide, post-election: "They spent four years working block by block, person by person to build their coalition." In today's gee-whiz high tech world, they used these offices to build personal contacts the old-fashioned way, one-at-a-time -- mostly face-to-face. By comparison, Romney's time constraints meant relying heavily on highly flawed purchased voter lists with less personal interaction.

Third, a massive army of volunteers used the powerful information to repeatedly go door-to-door to build local relationships. Ahonen describes the difference between Romney's 34,000 and Obama's army: "No, that's merely a mob. That's a boy scouts club, 34 thousand volunteers. The Obama campaign had recruited...over 300,000 volunteers. 109,000 of the volunteers were out in the field, to make 7 million visits to individual voter homes!!!" Obama's superior numbers meant they made more personal visits to homes than Romney's total contacts by phone.

Yale research has found that mail and phone calls have little impact on voting, whereas in-person canvassing raised turnout from around 44 percent to 53 percent, but being contacted by someone you know raised response rates four times. McKinsey estimates that today over 2/3 of the world's economy is influenced by word-of-mouth and it is valued 50 percent more today than in the 1970s.

Fourth, they deployed an in-person and phone "relationship-building" process. This relationship process was aided by community-building events like watch parties that started with Obama's early "State of the Union" speeches and culminated in over 3,200 watch parties for the first presidential debate and beyond. In addition to their powerful group-influence, "relationship assessment" information was gathered at these events, like: had they voted, were they intending to, did they support the campaign, could they give a phone number, were they willing to contribute, come volunteer. (Romney opted not to collect this type information feeling it too personal "the squeeze is not worth the juice.").

On average target voters were contacted five times face-to-face and in each touch they were not only enhancing personal relationships and making targeted pitches to promote Obama but also asking questions to help assess the relationship based on two key questions: the strength of their support for Obama and the likelihood of voting. In addition they were asked about their occupation which helped workers target messages -- like promoting the GM bailout for autoworkers. The campaign also maximized relationship clout by having their volunteer nurses call undecided nurses or veterans call undecided veterans. These relationship insights were invaluable in allocating and informing contact efforts as Election Day neared.

Additionally their phone calls averaged two minutes because they were also re-visiting "relationship assessment" data described above: By comparison many of Romney's calls were automated, "relationship-less" robocalls which meant they gained little information, many were ignored (64 percent according to Pew), and 28 percent had already voted -- all greatly diminishing the impact of precious contact resources.

Relationships are not only a powerful source of influence but also for making smarter, more effective decisions regarding the who, what, when and where of voter contact. Smart, informed contacts reinforce a spirit of relationship and uninformed "dumb" contacts signal estrangement. Interestingly, voters choosing "Cares about People" as the most important candidate quality opted for Obama over Romney 81 to 18 percent.

Billion dollar campaigns, super-sophisticated data mining, and social media grab a lot of the headlines but the Obama campaign confirms yet again the power of local, personal, face-to-face relationships in both building a powerful, personalized brand and in animating voting. The old slogan was, "it's the economy, stupid." New slogan, "it's the relationship, stupid."