According to Time magazine, the Obama campaign undertook an unprecedented data-mining effort that helped the president “raise $1 billion, remade the process of targeting TV ads and created detailed models of swing-state voters that could be used to increase the effectiveness of everything from phone calls and door knocks to direct mailings and social media.”
The Obama operation (code-named “Narwhal” for the Arctic whale with a long spiral tusk) merged “information collected from pollsters, fundraisers, field workers and consumer databases as well as social-media and mobile contacts with the main Democratic voter files in the swing states” into a single massive database, Time reported.
The Obama team then fed the data into advanced predictive models that allowed officials to target voters with specialized messages. For example, the Obama campaign could identify the Planned Parenthood supporters living within largely Christian Zip codes and send them e-mails about Romney’s “war on women” without the risk of alienating pro-life Reagan Democrats who might recoil from such language.
Narwhal also gave the Obama campaign unprecedented insight into how voters were moving as the campaign progressed. Polling organizations such as Gallup typically use a sample of 1,000 voters nationally to follow electoral trends. The Obama team developed a polling-data profile of 29,000 voters in Ohio alone and used this information to follow how various target groups were trending, how they responded to different messages and how events such as the presidential debates were moving the electorate — so they could respond effectively.
The system proved so accurate, Obama strategist David Axelrod declared, that “nothing happened on election night that surprised me — nothing. Every single domino that turned over was in keeping with the model that our folks had projected.”
What about Mitt Romney? How did the metrics-driven business executive tap into the power of data? The Romney campaign called its data-mining effort Project ORCA (for the Arctic killer whale that is the narwhal’s natural predator — get it?) and boasted that it would “ensure hyper-accuracy of our supporter targeting as we work to turn them out to the polls.” One Romney official even mocked the Obama data project, declaring, “The Obama campaign likes to brag about their ground operation, but it’s nothing compared to this.”
Well, the Obama operation was nothing like ORCA — because it worked. According to ABC News, ORCA crashed when its data servers overloaded. “So much data was coming in, the system thought it was under attack,” a campaign official told the network.