How the Obama campaign won the race for voter data
From the moment Barack Obama took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2009, and every day thereafter, his team was always preparing for the 2012 campaign. Everyone said Obama’s 2008 operation had rewritten the book on organizing. But that was just a beginning, a small first step toward what the team envisioned when it began planning the reelection campaign.
In one of their first conversations about 2012, campaign manager Jim Messina said he told the president that they could not rerun 2008. Obama seemed puzzled. “You know we won that one,” Obama said. Messina said too much had changed. For one thing, Obama was now an incumbent with a record. But technology had also leapfrogged forward, with new devices, new platforms and vastly more opportunities to exploit social media. The whole campaign would have to be different.
The president sent the team off to Chicago, far away from the hothouse of Washington and Beltway chatter, to use 2011 to build the foundation and reassemble the army from 2008. As the Republican candidates were gearing up and then battling one another through the summer and fall of 2011, the Obama team was investing enormous amounts of time, money and creative energy in what resembled a high-tech political start-up whose main purpose was to put more people on the streets, armed with more information about the voters they were contacting, than any campaign had ever attempted.
The Obama team had to be better in 2012. The weak economy made the president vulnerable to defeat. His political advisers knew well that turning out the vote would be far more challenging in the reelection effort than it had been in 2008. Many of his early supporters were disappointed and some were outright frustrated with Obama’s performance in office. The advisers recognized that Republicans were trying to block his agenda by questioning whether he had the leadership skills or the tenacity to get done what his first campaign had promised. Obama advisers also knew this campaign would have to be far more negative than the first — with few of the aspirational themes of 2008 — and they began preparing to attack Mitt Romney, the presumed challenger, long before the Republican primaries and caucuses began.
One of the hallmarks of Obama’s 2012 campaign was its prodigious appetite for research. The trio at the top — Messina, senior strategist David Axelrod and White House senior adviser David Plouffe — were enthusiastic consumers of research. Though different in their approaches to politics — Axelrod operated intuitively, Plouffe’s watchwords were “Prove it” and Messina wanted to be able to measure everything — they all pushed the campaign for more research, testing, analysis and innovation.
Message and media operated on one track. The other track focused on identifying, registering, mobilizing and ultimately turning out Obama voters. At the Chicago headquarters, these efforts were guided by Messina and Jen O’Malley Dillon, the deputy campaign manager, along with a sizable team of political organizers and tech-savvy newcomers.
“There’s always been two campaigns since the Internet was invented, the campaign online and the campaign on the doors. What I wanted was, I didn’t care where you organized, what time you organized, how you organized, as long as I could track it, I can measure it, and I can encourage you to do more of it.” Jim Messina, President Obama’s 2012 campaign manager
The first steps toward building the reelection operation around a single target — maximizing turnout to reach 270 electoral votes — were taken in the months after Obama’s 2008 victory. Campaign staffers compiled a series of after-action reports. “We did a very detailed postmortem where we looked at all kinds of numbers, looking at the general stuff like the number of door knocks we made, phone calls we made, number of voters that we registered,” said Mitch Stewart, who would direct the campaign’s 2012 effort in battleground states. “But then we broke it down by field organizer, we broke it down then by volunteer. We looked at the best way or the best examples in states of what their volunteer organization looked like.”
The project produced a three-ring binder that contained nearly 500 pages and was filled with recommendations on how to strengthen what was already considered a state-of-the-art field operation. Another early step was the decision to massively expand the investment in technology, digital, cable, new media and particularly analytics.
The Obama campaign had the usual contingent of pollsters and ad makers and opposition researchers and, like all campaigns today, a digital director. But it also had a chief technology officer (who had never done politics before), a chief innovation officer and a director of analytics, which would become one of the most important additions and a likely fixture in campaigns of the future. The team hired software engineers and data experts and number-crunchers and digital designers and video producers by the score. They filled the back of a vast room resembling a brokerage house trading floor or tech start-up that occupied the sixth floor of One Prudential Plaza overlooking Millennium Park in Chicago.
No campaign had ever invested so heavily in technology and analytics, and no campaign had ever had such stated ambitions. “Technology was another big lesson learned from 2008, leap of faith and labor of love and angst-ridden entity and all the other things that you can imagine, because we were building things in-house mostly with people that had not done campaign work before,” Dillon later told me. “The deadlines and breaking and testing — is it going to work, what do we do? . . . At the end of the day, it was certainly worth it, because you can’t customize our stuff, and so we just couldn’t buy off the shelf for anything and you know that, and fortunately we had enough time to kind of build the stuff. I don’t know who else will ever have the luxury of doing that again.”
Messina was as data driven as any presidential campaign manager in modern times, and Dillon had concentrated her efforts while at the Democratic National Committee in 2009 and 2010 on the programs that would make Obama’s groundbreaking 2008 campaign look old-fashioned in comparison. They wanted all the data the campaign accumulated about voters to be integrated. The campaign had a voter list and a donor list and volunteer lists and other lists, but what it wanted was the ability to link all the contacts each person had with the operation into one database.
“There’s always been two campaigns since the Internet was invented, the campaign online and the campaign on the doors,” Messina told me. “What I wanted was, I didn’t care where you organized, what time you organized, how you organized, as long as I could track it, I can measure it, and I can encourage you to do more of it.” It took the technology team nearly a year, but it produced software that allowed all of the campaign’s lists to talk to one another. The team named it Narwhal, after a whale of amazing strength that lives in the Arctic but is rarely seen. Harper Reed, the chief technology officer, described it as the software platform for everything else the campaign wanted to do and build.
The next goal was to create a program that would allow everyone — campaign staffers in Chicago, state directors and their staff in the battlegrounds, field organizers, volunteers going door to door and volunteers at home — to communicate simply and seamlessly. The Obama team wanted something that allowed the field organizers in the Des Moines or Columbus or Fairfax offices to have access to all the campaign’s information about the voters for whom they were responsible. They wanted volunteer leaders to have online access as well. That brought about the creation of Dashboard, which Messina later said was the hardest thing the campaign did but which became the central online organizing vehicle. It was enormously complicated to develop, made all the more difficult because the engineers who were building it had never worked on a campaign and did not instinctively understand the work of field organizers. Some of them were sent out to the states briefly as organizers to better understand the needs of those on the front lines.
“Dashboard is what we needed to communicate,” Dillon said. “It was all about the users, so if the users didn’t have a good experience, there was no point in it. . . . That’s why it was the Holy Grail.”
Reed described it as a way to bring the field office to the Internet. “When you walk into a field office, you have many opportunities,” he said. “We’ll hand you a call sheet. You can make calls. You can knock on doors, and they’ll have these stacks there for you. They’ll say: ‘Harper, you’ve knocked on 50 doors. That’s great. Here’s how you compare to the rest of them.’ But it’s all very offline. It’s all very ad hoc, and it’s not very modern. And so what we set out to do was create that offline field experience online.”