Obama’s reelection campaign was like running for Chicago alderman with the help of nerdy kids who spoke a math language no one else understood. The key was microtargeting, which had bad odor in recent years thanks to the marketing industry. Microtargeting sounded intrusive, even a little creepy, but it had the potential to return politics to the most local level of all: the individual voter.
The idea was that everything the geeks did should be a ‘force multiplier’.
From the start, there was trouble in digital paradise — a culture clash. They often took their mandate for ‘disruption’ too far.
Fortunately for Obama, the campaign was loaded with geeks who knew what Facebook could do before Facebook did.
Tech had some terrific people but was so focused on trying — and often failing — to build cool new apps that it didn’t give the teams the workaday tools they wanted.
In truth, Narwhal was always more of a concept than a product.
Obama field organizers, armed with the fruits of Big Data, could bring a presidential campaign to the front porch as never before. OFA’s aim was to use algorithms to enhance the human (and thus more persuasive) part of politics: face-to-face, friend-to-friend, or at least Facebook friend-to-Facebook friend.
The new analysts did something unheard of by profiling and targeting unlikely voters. That transformed registration from a passive activity — sitting at a folding table in a supermarket parking lot — into something active and much more efficient.
By 2011 the technology of the 2008 campaign was long obsolete. So Obama campaign manager Jim Messina set out for the West Coast, where Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google, and executives from Apple, Facebook, Zynga, Microsoft, DreamWorks, and Salesforce all told him he should not just view the campaign as a start-up but hire much of his digital crew from start-ups that were outside of politics. The idea was that everything the geeks did should be a “force multiplier” for Field, Communications, Finance, and other departments, not an end in itself.
The digital team assembled in Chicago was in fact three teams — Digital, Tech, and Analytics — with interrelated and often competitive functions. All were headed by soon-to-be-legendary characters within the campaign. Teddy Goff said he wanted the young recruits in Digital to be so good they could be hired afterward by Nike or Coca-Cola and “not be seen as hippy dippys.” Michael Slaby and Harper Reed hired geeky geniuses from top tech companies ranging from Google to craigslist. Analytics ended up with a motley crew of mostly under-thirty data scientists and financial analysts, plus a biophysicist, a former child prodigy, and three professional poker players.
From the start, there was trouble in digital paradise — a culture clash between the engineers from tech companies and the more politically seasoned product managers and data analysts.
Harper Reed’s code writers, though lacking in campaign experience, were often paid $100,000 a year, twice as much as some of their colleagues in other sections of the campaign. Reed said Tech could afford the higher salaries because it held down head count by hiring fewer people than rival departments. The pay gap was exacerbated by the Tech team’s habit of routinely leaving the office at the ungodly hour of 6:30 p.m., five, six, even seven hours before Digital, Analytics, and other sections went home. This schedule was explained by the fact that they were older (meaning a few were in their mid-thirties) and, unlike most Chicago staffers, often had families.
A little humility would have gone a long way toward helping Tech blend in, but it wasn’t forthcoming. “Instead of ‘Listen and learn,’ they [Tech people] came in with a ‘Burn the place down’ attitude — real arrogant,” said one senior campaign official. “It was, ‘Fuck the vendors — we’ll build everything in-house.’ ” But the vendors, firms like NGP VAN that specialized in voter contact, knew politics, and Reed’s department did not. Tech team members used their fluency in tech jargon to their advantage, but they were often illiterate in basic political language.
And they often took their mandate for “disruption” too far. But all of this would have been minor if the products Tech developed were working.
Facebook vs. The Narwhal Whale
Tech’s great white whale, dubbed “Narwhal” (after a toothed whale), was to integrate the more than 13 million Obama supporters now on the Email List with many other databases.
Instead of modeling and extrapolating, the dream was to match 25 million Facebook “likes” of Obama with county voter registration rolls, census data, 2008 voter contact information, contributor lists, and fresh information from door-to-door canvassers for a unified data platform on millions of voters in battleground states.
In Tech’s defense, the complexity of the Narwhal project was daunting. The hairiest challenge, the goal of Narwhal, was identifying which dieting donor might want to learn more about Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity initiative, or which Obama supporter had once signed a petition for women’s rights and might now be willing to send her whole mailbox something about Mitt Romney’s attack on Planned Parenthood.
This was much harder than it sounded. Some of the people designing Narwhal thought it wouldn’t be fully functional until 2016, by which time Barack Obama, if he won, would be getting ready to leave the White House.
Instead of waiting for Tech to build Narwhal, Analytics compensated by relying more heavily on software from a company called Vertica that helped produce enough new data sets to keep the Cave dwellers happy. And Chris Wegrzyn and Gabriel Burt of Analytics developed a tool dubbed “Stork” that allowed key vendors to transfer their data into campaign databases.
OFA ended up with pieces of Narwhal instead of the whole whale. The best piece of all was Facebook, which was growing so fast that it might be able to accomplish some of what everyone had hoped for from Narwhal.
Fortunately for Obama, the campaign was loaded with geeks who knew what Facebook could do before Facebook did. Rayid Ghani, OFA’s chief data scientist, led a team that began to customize a Facebook app into something called “targeted sharing.” The idea was that if an Obama supporter had, say, one thousand Facebook friends, the campaign could determine that nine hundred of them were already for Obama, focus on one hundred who were persuadable, and ideally zero in on six or so who lived in battleground states and were in regular enough contact to be considered real friends, not just Facebook friends. When those potential Obama voters were identified, their friend (the active Obama supporter) would be notified. He or she could then send them Obama’s position on issues and urge them to register and eventually to vote.
Because the message came from a real friend, it would be much more credible and influential than if it came from a stranger representing the campaign. That was the theory, anyway. All of this was much easier to envision than to execute. Common names meant thousands of cases of mistaken identity. Uncommon names were often misspelled and thus orphaned. Some voters used home addresses, others work addresses.
Digital’s biggest tech innovation was “Quick Donate,” a mobile app that raised an extra $75 million by letting supporters give money with one click instead of filling out a form. Donors who used Quick Donate gave four times as often and three times as much as those who didn’t. The mobile app led to what the campaign called “drunk donating,” where Obama supporters agitated by polls showing Romney gains impulsively kicked in before they thought better of it.
Quick Donate was supposed to be a Tech project, but it was engineered by the less experienced code writers inside Digital. This was another example of why tensions between Tech and the other departments hadn’t eased much. Tech had some terrific people but was so focused on trying — and often failing — to build cool new apps that it didn’t give Digital, Field, Finance, and Comm the workaday tools they wanted.
In June Tech finally came through with Dashboard, which was praised by many field organizers for helping put all of their local efforts at their fingertips. For many Obama volunteers, Dashboard became almost a new social network. It helped tens of thousands tap into the long-delayed Call Tool, which allowed volunteers to join Nurses for Obama, Veterans for Obama, Seniors for Obama, and other subgroups.
Narwhal failed — “a huge disaster,” as one senior staffer put it. A unified data platform, instant access to highly detailed information (beyond support scores) on millions of American voters, would have to wait. It was not yet possible to, say, link a veteran supporting Obama in Ohio to a persuadable veteran from his same army unit in Virginia. Harper Reed’s insistence that Narwhal was a success depended on defining it more narrowly as a “data store” for all of the campaign’s applications.
In truth, Narwhal was always more of a concept than a product. By 2016, maybe even by the 2014 midterms, Democratic geeks might be closer to catching the great toothed whale.
Facebook-targeted sharing, by contrast, was a monster success, especially with the youth vote. In an era in which half of eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds were unreachable by phone, Facebook was essential for a candidate like Obama.
By the end of the campaign 600,000 Obama supporters had each used Facebook to contact around half a dozen specific friends identified by Chicago: 3.5 million potential Obama voters in battleground states. Nearly one-third of them, one million people, took some action in response, such as registering. This was a staggering response rate and the debut of a digital persuasion and get-out-the-vote tool that would inevitably be adopted by every campaign at every level.
Friend-to-friend was the highest form of voter contact, though it was hardly perfect: A Romney staffer, Matt Lira, was encouraged through targeted sharing to contact his Facebook friend, House Minority Leader Eric Cantor, and urge him to vote for Obama.Excerpted from The Center Holds.
Copyright 2013 by Jonathan Alter. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.