Although Obama’s 2008 election was hailed for its technological advances, campaign officials acknowledge that the operation fell far short of its hype.
With the benefit of four years of lead time, the campaign was determined to make better use of increasingly sophisticated technology. Driving this was Obama’s data-minded campaign manager, Jim Messina. Among his mentors was Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who was a regular visitor to what many have said resembled an Internet start-up company within the Chicago campaign headquarters.
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The campaign invested heavily in engineers and technologists, including many who had never worked in politics, and used Amazon Web Services to host the voter database on its cloud servers. The key was a program the campaign built — called Narwhal after a predatory whale whose single tusk makes it look a bit like a fat, finned unicorn — that consolidated lists of voters and donors, often collected over years by state party officials and campaigns.
Narwhal allowed related pieces of software, such as those used by field organizers and call center workers, to draw on the information in the voter database and continually update it.
Slaby and others from the campaign said that although it relied on detailed analyses of cable television viewing habits and Web traffic, personal information from those sources was made anonymous and did not flow back into the voter database.
The most important information, officials said, was provided by voters themselves whenever they had contact with the campaign, in person or online, enriching the database with e-mail addresses, cellphone numbers and, crucially, information about what issues most concerned them.
This allowed the campaign’s analysts to test the effectiveness of messages aimed at narrow demographic slices — single women in their 30s worried about health care, for example. Although it was often described as “micro-targeting,” Slaby said the most important element was what he called “micro-listening.”
“If people tell us they’re interested in cats, we probably took that down,” he said.