Frederick Harris is walking through his front gate in Washington, D.C., after a morning coffee, when he spots me on his front steps, staring at my mobile phone. “Are you Frederick?” I say. “Depends who’s asking,” he replies warily, as you do to a strange man loitering by your front door.
I want to reply “Barack Obama” – and I would only be half-wrong.
It had taken all of a few minutes to download the app designed by President Obama’s re-election campaign at my kitchen table and have it guide me to Harris’s house a few blocks away, in the Capitol Hill neighbourhood.
One tap on the app’s icon for voter canvassing and the screen lights up with a street map dotted with small blue flags, marking the Democrats in the area his re-election campaign would like to have door-knocked. Tap on the flag, and the app brings up their address. Another tap and I have their first names, their age and their gender, as in “Frederick H., 75, M.”
Since its launch this year, anyone can download the “Obama for America” app and see the party affiliation of many of their neighbours, with the ages and exact addresses thrown in for good measure. Harris, who shares the house with his wife, seems unperturbed about any possible assault on his privacy and is happy to provide me with his full surname.
“If they are trying to identify sympathetic Democrats, they have got two in the cross hairs right here,” he says, of him and his wife. “Everything is an invasion of privacy these days. If I got excited about it, I would have had a coronary by now.”
Others are not so relaxed. At the home of 45-year-old “Deanne S.”, in the next block, the man who answers the door recoils as I try to show him his household’s details displayed on my mobile phone. “I am not sure she will talk to you,” he says, and shuts the door.
The Obama campaign has already rewritten the electioneering playbook once, in 2008. For the first time in a presidential poll, supporters could create their own user profile on the campaign’s My.BarackObama.com site and use it to join groups, arrange events and raise money. About 2m enthusiasts signed up, and the Republicans were left eating Obama’s digital dust.
But what was revolutionary in 2008 is normal now. And unlike 2008, when Obama outspent John McCain by about three to one, Mitt Romney and his supporters will have a big money advantage. With the US economy mired in a sluggish recovery, Obama and his campaign are trying to reinvent the game again. So close is the election, and so far has Obama’s stock fallen since those heady days in 2008, that his campaign is relying on their advantage in technology and social media in their battle to stay in the White House.
The sprawling, open-plan Chicago headquarters of the Obama campaign, and their small huddles of twentysomethings hunched around computer screens, look like an internet start-up for a reason. The traditional trappings of US presidential elections are still important stages from which to sway voters, from the razzle-dazzle of the conventions to the hard slog of daily rallies on the hustings and the endless rounds of fundraising dinners. But in the 21st century, campaigns can use technology to micro-target voters like never before.
“Big data are the story of this election – the whole political media ecology has changed,” says Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Forum, who has advised numerous politicians on the use of technology. “The Obama campaign won’t admit to their real level of sophistication, because they have no reason to.”
In the old days, volunteer door-knockers would have gone to campaign headquarters, where they would have been given a few pieces of paper, a list of names and addresses and a clipboard. Now, campaigns can save supporters the trouble of the trip, because the information about the address of Harris and the like is just a few taps away on their mobile phones.
But the app provides only a tiny glimpse into the tools being used by both competing candidates and their campaigns. Through Facebook interactions, blog postings and Twitter accounts, the campaigns now know much more than the few biographical scraps of the kind displayed by the free campaign download.
They might know whether voters have made up their minds whom to support, what issue will sway their decision, and which of their friends are best placed to talk them around. They can then match that up with other information – how much they earn, their religion, whether they are married or divorced, how many children they have, and so on.
“Most people think, ‘Oh my God! They know everything about me – they’ve got detectives in my bushes!’” says Mike Murphy, a longtime Republican strategist who has advised Romney in past campaigns. “They don’t. But they do know if you’re a Catholic professional who owns a house and who’s registered to vote, and doesn’t vote in school board elections but tends to vote in other elections. And if you’re married, have three kids and subscribe to a lot of magazines.”
With that information, he says, “they can start to match you up with maybe 100 sub-clusters of different types of people, based on polling, and guess – they never know for sure – what you’re more likely to be interested in. And then try to tailor some communication to you based on that.”
When he was appointed the campaign manager for Obama’s re-election, Jim Messina didn’t rush out to sit at the feet of the political consultants who had done the job before him. Messina wanted to find out how to reach voters with personal messages to persuade them to turn out to support the president.
So the former White House deputy chief of staff went to Hollywood and Silicon Valley to see top executives at Apple, Facebook and DreamWorks to get up to speed on technology and marketing. Messina counts Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, as a mentor, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
Just as Messina has been instructed by CEOs, he styles himself as one. In that respect, he is following the example set by the Republicans’ winning campaign in 2004. That year, George W. Bush ran for re-election in the midst of the chaos of the Iraq war. He only prevailed because his campaign managed to find and target millions of voters who hadn’t turned out for Bush four years earlier.
Ken Mehlman, Bush’s campaign manager, who now works in private equity, didn’t rely on his gut instinct to guide him. Like a McKinsey consultant, he set benchmarks and measured them every week to see if his strategy was working. The campaign set targets for dollars raised; voter registration; the number of visits they wanted to make to different places around the country; polling; and the number of people they wanted to book on television.
The Republicans were also ahead in matching consumer data about magazine subscriptions and credit records to voter records to try to predict behaviour. Of course, they also used some political tricks – putting a referendum about same-sex marriage on the ballot in some states in 2004 to bring evangelicals to the polls, for example.
Mehlman dismissed the idea he was some kind of political guru. He told everyone that his job “was to be the CEO of the campaign”. After the election was over, he recounted to friends and colleagues how he had spent a third of his time on the campaign’s budget. Most campaigns end up with millions of dollars still in the bank, either because they have not spent the money efficiently, or because they have not been able to navigate the complex rules governing campaign finance. Mehlman was proud of the fact that he had just $50,000 left in the bank at the end of the campaign.
Like Mehlman, Messina and his team talk constantly of “metrics” and being guided by “the data”. “We measure every single thing we do. We have goals every single day and feedback,” says Marlon Marshall, whose title in the campaign’s Chicago headquarters – deputy of field operations – makes him sound like a military commander.
The comparison is appropriate, because modern election campaigns rise or fall on logistics. Voter conversations, door knocks and new voter registrations, along with their race, age and gender – all are constantly tracked and measured. “If we created the internal combustion engine in 2004,” says one senior Republican, “then the Obama campaign have figured out how to create the race car.”
The engine room of the extraordinary grassroots campaign sucking up this information is in places like downtown Denver, Colorado, in the mountain west region. In a small room in a converted warehouse, Jill Wildenberg’s life until November 6 is plastered all over the wall. The tasks of the 100-plus volunteer army she is deploying to get Obama re-elected are laid out, too, in a collage resembling a giant paint catalogue, with rows of Post-it notes structured in a neat rectangular grid.
In just one small slice of Colorado’s largest city, Wildenberg is juggling nearly a dozen groups, each covering a few blocks of the city, with their tasks divided in multiple ways. Some man the phones or knock on doors. Others register voters. Another group collects data to be sent back to campaign headquarters in Chicago and a fifth provides volunteers with food and drink.
“Community organising is not a top-down exercise,” says Wildenberg, a veteran volunteer of the 2008 campaign, who has left her job to work full-time on the campaign. This time around, she adds, the grassroots effort “is much more detailed and systematic than last time, and each turf is much smaller”.
The Obama campaign had arranged for me to meet the 56-year-old former director of education at a local synagogue in a swing through the must-win mountain west state. Tireless, enthusiastic and devoted to the president, she embodies the ethos the campaign wants to promote – that ordinary people speaking to their neighbours will beat the wealthy people writing million-dollar cheques for the Republicans’ Romney.
Not on display for reporters, however, is the full kit of digital tools that Wildenberg and thousands of volunteers like her across the country can take into the field with them. Nor would the Obama campaign say what precise information Wildenberg’s volunteers have to work with. But they will have vastly more data at their disposal than the app’s few details about age and gender. “We are spending a lot of time making sure what we do in the social media is available to people on the ground,” says one Obama campaign official. “We have one organising unit with digital and social components.”
By the time a campaign is making a decision about how it might reach a particular voter, they already have a very sophisticated profile of how that person might respond to a particular type of message. They might, says Rasiej, to take one example, have someone in Colorado who voted in the last election and signed up to their website, but doesn’t visit it very often and has not donated.
Through publicly available information, they know that voter is a single mother earning $60,000 a year, living in an area with few people making that much money. Then they can discover that she also posts on a blog for single mothers concerned about healthcare costs, or that she tweeted about environmental products, or that the majority of her public posts on Facebook or Twitter are about green issues. The campaign then sorts through these personal variables with their custom-built algorithms to construct voter profiles.
“So, with her email address, they may contact her directly with a message from Michelle Obama only touting environmental issues as the reason that she should support the President’s campaign,” says Rasiej. “They can get down to literally that kind of detail, and then as time goes on they keep feeding new information back in.”
The Republicans can do the same, but Romney’s network is smaller on Twitter and Facebook, the two most important social media networks. Obama has about 28 million “likes” on his Facebook page; Romney only about 6.5 million. There’s a similar yawning gap in their respective Twitter followers. To some extent, these are “vanity metrics”, says Patrick Ruffini, the president of Engage, a digital agency, who has worked with the Republican National Committee and also George W. Bush’s campaign. “Unless you sign people up on your website, you don’t know who these people are.”
An Obama adviser responds that the campaign tries to leverage what it calls “the behavioural stuff. So if you always open emails about veterans’ issues, and you never open emails about jobs, we are going to try to serve you with as much veterans’ materials as we can, and on Facebook as well.
“How many times do people like to volunteer; what topics they donate on? That is a lot more useful for us than age and demographics. If a person is 70 or 20 and they both respond to the exact same content, that is what we care about.”
Voters trust the traditional media less than ever. They do not believe politicians and their surrogates either. So the aim is to get friends to persuade their friends, using material supplied by the campaign.
“We want to find a way to get our followers to share material with their friends, or like it, so it ends up in their friends’ feeds,” the campaign official adds. “We’ve learnt 100-fold from 2008. We can put stuff in front of every American, and that is incredible.”
Richard McGregor is the FT’s Washington bureau chief