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Inside the Obama Campaign's Hard Drive

Obama's tech guru and his microtargeting whiz kids are building a new kind of Chicago machine. Can they help the president hold on to the Oval Office?

Similarly, a canvasser in the field will use her smartphone or tablet to access certain personal info about the voters she's trying to contact, and will also be able to call up tips on what issues to raise and what kind of pitch to make, which is derived from the campaign's voter analytics. She is then able to enter more information—what worked and what didn't, which issues resonated—directly into the system. The effect is to transform the historically tactile practice of canvassing into something more empirical.

"In terms of just the sheer amount of data that political candidates have on you, I think everyone finds it creepy."

But perhaps nothing has changed the game for political microtargeters more than the ubiquity of social networks. Privacy rules, which vary from site to site, technically render a lot of data inaccessible; Facebook's terms of use limit the extent to which outside groups can mine the site. But the Obama campaign has found ways around those barriers too. One of the campaign's most useful innovations in 2008 was to create a social-media platform,, that encouraged its 2 million members to log in with their Facebook accounts. Those who did consented to the campaign's harvesting some of their Facebook data.

Four years later, the campaign has grown even more sophisticated. Visit Dashboard, the 2012 organizing portal that Reed helped develop, and you're given a never-ending variety of tasks designed to both engage you and learn more about you. If you sign your name to a petition on the site, that's tracked. If, as you're prompted to do time and again, you write a paragraph explaining what the campaign means to you, that text can be mined for relevant signifiers (say, support for LGBT equality) and added to your voter profile.

"I teach this, and to a T my students use the word 'creepy,'" says Daniel Kreiss, a professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill whose new book, Taking Our Country Back, focuses on the rise of the Democrats' digital machine. "In terms of just the sheer amount of data that political candidates have on you, I think everyone finds it creepy."

In practice, the Obama team isn't doing anything private companies haven't already been doing for a few years. But the scope of its operation represents a major shift for politics—voters expect to be able to obsessively analyze information about the candidates, not the other way around.

For OFA, though, there's no such thing as TMI.

REED REPRESENTS an approach to technology that distinguishes the Obama campaign from its counterpart in Boston. Whereas Romney has outsourced much of his data-focused operations, this time around Team Obama—which has been advised by representatives from Google and Facebook, according to Bloomberg Businessweek—is trying to emulate a start-up atmosphere in hopes of fostering the kind of innovation rarely associated with stuffy political shops. Fewer consultants, more in-house geeks.

"[They've] taken this sort of data-driven mentality and expanded it across the entire campaign," says Josh Hendler, the former director of technology at the Democratic National Committee, who's staying on the sidelines in 2012. Dashboard, for instance, mimics some of the gaming tactics that Threadless pioneered. Volunteers can see their personal statistics updated in real time—money raised, calls attempted, conversations held, one-on-one meetings convened. A scoreboard allows volunteers to see how they stack up against their peers. The campaign, in turn, can use this data to gauge which field offices are hitting their goals and which ones aren't.

As the campaign becomes ever more absorbed in all things digital, its real-world networks have shifted accordingly. One of Reed's first moves as CTO was to fly with Slaby to San Francisco, where they held an information session for techies at Zeitgeist, a popular Mission District beer garden. In February, OFA unveiled a new satellite technology office in the city's ultra-wired SoMa neighborhood, the first of a handful of such offices slated to open across the country.

Romney's Boston campaign operation, by contrast, had no software engineers on staff until well after the end of the primary season, according to a Mother Jones analysis of payroll data provided to the FEC. Its forays into the digital world have caught attention mostly for their miscues, like an iPhone app that featured a misspelled "America." But the campaign has quietly begun tackling the same challenges faced by OFA, only with a twist. Slate's Sasha Issenberg reported in July that the campaign had recently hired eggheads from places like Google Analytics and Apple in an attempt to reverse engineer the Obama campaign's strategy. Hence Team Obama's shroud of secrecy around its digital ops.

It's ironic that Romney's 2012 campaign is reduced to such a reactive mode since the former consultant was himself an early convert to the data-centric campaign. When Alex Lundry's conservative analytics shop, TargetPoint, approached the Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate in 2002 with the idea of using analytics to identify voters, Romney's Bain confidants were stunned: "You mean they don't do this in politics?"

Lundry signed on this summer to lead Team Romney's data efforts but, overall, the campaign has favored contracting the work of microtargeting to private firms. The good news for Romney is that it's never been easier to buy off the rack. As of late June, the Romney campaign had paid $13 million to Targeted Victory, whose cofounder, Zac Moffatt, is also the campaign's digital director. Moffatt brags that his firm can beam totally different messages to two voters in the same house. That's 2005 stuff for commercial advertisers, but in the political world it still counts as innovation.

At Moffatt's direction, Romney is placing an emphasis on "off the grid" voters—the roughly 30 percent of voters who Moffatt has determined don't watch enough live television to be swayed by commercials. It's a number that will only increase as more and more people consume media on handheld devices or DVR their favorite shows.

In 2010, Targeted Victory began employing Lotame, a company that uses cookies to track your online habits—everything from the websites you comment on to the articles you share with friends. To gauge voter sentiment it even crawled Huffington Post comment sections, according to the Wall Street Journal. (Huffington Post says it ended its relationship with Lotame after the incident due to privacy concerns.) Asked about the company's political operations, a spokesman says, "Lotame has been asked to stop talking about it."*

"If it's close, you're absolutely talking about winning and losing the election based on the quality of your data, and the quality of the program."

The line between data mining and cyberstalking is already blurred, especially in the commercial sector. To illustrate their powers, analysts like to point to Target, which used a 25-element "pregnancy prediction score" that guessed online shopper's due dates. Political campaigns are just catching up, but once they do, their privacy practices may be tougher to control because of the protections afforded to political speech. "Basically we have a new world of information management that has emerged, and it's a world that may well claim total impunity from regulation," says Joe Turow, a University of Pennsylvania professor studying voter attitudes toward political data mining.

Crunching data can only take a campaign so far. Microtargeting can help candidates squeeze more dollars out of their supporters, and more value out of those dollars; it can't change the prevailing political environment. Yet in a tight race—and today, presidential elections come down to a handful of percentage points—obsessive intelligence-gathering can provide a critical edge. "If it's close, you're absolutely talking about winning and losing the election based on the quality of your data, and the quality of the program," Hendler says.

IN LATE JUNE, as I finished hoovering up the online traces of the man tasked with assembling the president's data-mining operation, Reed was polishing off book number 558, A.I. Apocalypse. It's about a high school computer geek who accidentally unleashes an out-of-control AI program that threatens to overwhelm the world.

Among technologists, singularity—the idea that technological forces will one day usher in a new form of superintelligence that will forever change civilization—is something of a Holy Grail. It's a vision of the future with plenty of appeal for someone who, like Reed, owes his career to the power of collective intelligence. His bio on his personal website notes, right after name-checking Threadless, "I am patiently waiting for the singularity."

The rise of the genius machines probably won't come in 2012. Until then, Harper Reed will have to do.

*This paragraph has been revised from its original print version.

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