The Data Miners: Tech Secrets From Obama’s Re-Election Geek Squad

How startup technology helped win the election

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Message is one thing, but in modern presidential politics, it can’t go very far without a machine. And during Obama’s 2012 campaign, that machine was fueled with new methods devised by a  geek squad convened from multinational ad agencies, corporate consultancies and high-tech start-ups.

The goals were the same as ever: more money in the bank, more door knocks, more phone calls, more voter registrations and more voters at the polls. But the methods for achieving those ends in 2012 bordered on the revolutionary. A squad of dozens of data crunchers created algorithms for predicting the likelihood that someone would respond to specific types of requests to accomplish each of those goals. Vast quantities of information were collected and then employed to predict just which television shows various target voters in certain cities were watching at just what time of day — the better to decide where to place TV ads. Facebook, which was an afterthought in 2008, became the new electronic telephone call, employed to persuade more than 600,000 Obama supporters to reach out to 5 million swing-state friends online with targeted messages in the days before the election. One woman in central Ohio who was living with her young voting-age daughter reported that her house got four different visits on the morning of Election Day, each from a different neighbor making sure both women had remembered to vote.

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The geek squad also found new ways to make voters turn out their pockets. They refined meet-the-candidate lotteries into an art form, invented a system for texting dollars from a mobile phone that required entering only a single number and experimented with the language of e-mail pitches until they stung. Of his $1 billion campaign-cash haul, Obama was able to raise $690 million online in 2012, up from about $500 million in 2008. More than $200 million of that came in donations of $200 or less, a 10% increase over the history-making frenzy of 2008. In a campaign that big super-PAC money was supposed to dominate, Obama’s operation proved that many small efforts were more powerful than a few big ones. No one in either party thinks campaign finance will ever be the same.

How much of this survives for future Democrats when Obama exits the stage? Obama’s advisers are quick to say it won’t be around for others to tap. Too much of the Obama coalition, they say, is about Obama himself. It might reject anyone who tries to take up his mantle in a few years. “This organization is not transferable,” says a senior campaign adviser. “The next nominee on either side is going to have to build their own coalition.”

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