For years, presidential campaigns seeking to divide the country into manageable chunks have turned to geography. National parties assign political directors to each region; Senator John McCain’s presidential campaign even went so far as to designate regional campaign managers. Both of President Barack Obama’s campaigns were organized around a series of six regional pods, with a lead official in each responsible for managing field, data, communication, or digital across seven or eight states.
2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton also uses pods—but hers look nothing like Obama’s. As she has reoriented her campaign for the general election, her team has devised a structure that reflects not geographic contiguity, with its common weather patterns or vernacular music traditions across neighboring states, but instead the different type of campaigning she will need to win each one. Most importantly, the structure acknowledges the increasing importance of early voting, which offers Clinton the potential to lock in an early lead when ballots begin to be cast in late September.
“Geography didn't necessarily make sense. It's not like, ‘You cover the West and that involves driving between those states.’ It was sort of just a proxy for, ‘The Western states are more or less similar because they have Latino people and mountains,’” says Michael Simon, a data analyst who was assigned to Obama’s Southwest pod in 2008 and served as the campaign’s targeting lead. “The previous system was fairly arbitrary. So why not try something else?”
In Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters, states with major opportunities for early voting—such as North Carolina and Colorado—are in their own pod, while the remaining states are divided into two. One pod has large, diverse states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where mobilizing minorities and young whites will be essential to her victory. The other pod contains smaller, mostly white ones like Iowa and New Hampshire, which present fewer opportunities to identify and turn out new voters but a major need for persuasion.
The reorganization reflects the fact that the calendar, rather than the map, has been growing ever more important. More than one-quarter of Americans who voted in 2012 did so in ways other than visiting a polling place on Election Day, according to data compiled by University of Florida political scientist Michael P. McDonald.
The share of early voters was significantly higher in several key battlegrounds. In Nevada, for example, nearly twice as many 2012 voters cast ballots at in-person early-vote locations than on election day itself. (Another 8 percent of the total electorate voted by mail-in absentee ballot.) In Florida and North Carolina, the early-voting and Election Day electorates were split about evenly.
“You have to run a significantly different campaign—in terms of timing, number of appearances, your paid spend,” said David Plouffe, manager of Obama’s 2008 campaign and an informal adviser to Clinton’s. “For many people in the campaign that are in early-vote states you don’t care about Election Day.”