The story of Barack Obama’s data-driven campaign approach is still being told. Building on their 2008 success, the Obama data junkies assembled a truly astounding, state-of-the-art framework to microtarget advertising and fundraising appeals to the individual level. The MIT Technology Review just ran an eye-opening three-part article on how the team put the data monstrosity together:
Many of those who went to Washington after the 2008 election in order to further the president’s political agenda returned to Chicago in the spring of 2011 to work on his reëlection. The chastening losses they had experienced in Washington separated them from those who had known only the ecstasies of 2008. “People who did ‘08, but didn’t do ‘10, and came back in ‘11 or ‘12—they had the hardest culture clash,” says Jeremy Bird, who became national field director on the reëlection campaign. But those who went to Washington and returned to Chicago developed a particular appreciation for Wagner’s methods of working with the electorate at an atomic level. It was a way of thinking that perfectly aligned with their simple theory of what it would take to win the president reëlection: get everyone who had voted for him in 2008 to do it again. At the same time, they knew they would need to succeed at registering and mobilizing new voters, especially in some of the fastest-growing demographic categories, to make up for any 2008 voters who did defect.
Obama’s campaign began the election year confident it knew the name of every one of the 69,456,897 Americans whose votes had put him in the White House. They may have cast those votes by secret ballot, but Obama’s analysts could look at the Democrats’ vote totals in each precinct and identify the people most likely to have backed him. Pundits talked in the abstract about reassembling Obama’s 2008 coalition. But within the campaign, the goal was literal. They would reassemble the coalition, one by one, through personal contacts.
2008’s “hope and change” morphed into “Big Data” in 2012:
In fact, the tech side was the only part of the Obama operation that could credibly be framed as a throwback to the old Hope and Change: Despite the slash-and-burn quality of the Obama reelection campaign as seen by America’s television viewers, the president’s 33 million Facebook fans “were experiencing a whole different campaign that was largely positive,” Goff explained at Harvard. “What they were experiencing was this uplifting stuff about supporting the middle class, about fighting for education, and that kind of thing.” And when you consider that Obama’s Facebook fans were themselves friends with 98 percent of Facebook users in the U.S.—“That’s more than the number of people who vote,” Goff said—then the Obamanauts can plausibly argue that, for many Obama voters, maybe 2012 wasn’t that different from 2008 after all.
Even more important, the nerd narrative gives the Obamanauts hope for the future. After their historic victory in 2008, they predicted that their candidate was so amazing that he could single-handedly transform Washington by sheer force of will. That obviously didn’t come to pass. But now they are making similar predictions—not because of their man but because of their machine. “Luckily for us, I don’t see anyone on the Republican side who understands what we did,” Bird told me in Cambridge before going on to explain not only his grand designs of electing another Democrat president in 2016, but also for turning Texas blue.
That’s what Steven Brill at Reuters is thinking:
The Times article describes the rise of “programmatic advertising,” in which new online tracking technologies allow an advertiser to follow a consumer whose profile fits the advertiser’s targeted demographics wherever the consumer goes online rather than just make an educated guess about the websites that consumer is most likely to visit.
Before programmatic advertising, if an upscale restaurant chain decided that its best prospects were well-to-do men who live in major metropolitan areas and travel a lot, it might buy ads in the business sections of high-end newspapers or on business travel sites. Now the restaurant chain can follow those targeted people to any website they visit. It doesn’t have to buy ads on the sites where the target is most likely to be found but can instead simply bid on an electronic ad exchange to buy the cheapest ad that will reach someone with those demographics no matter where he or she goes (a gossip site, for example).
This erodes the premium upscale newspaper sites can charge. The individual consumer is what’s important and now identifiable, not the place where he sees the ad.
Thus, the Times reports in this article, “The shift is punishing traditional online publishers,” and that online advertising revenue at its own newspaper actually fell 2.2 percent in the last quarter as a result of a decline in the rates the Times is able to charge for Web advertising. That’s a trend reflected lately in the results of most other major newspapers.
In other words, on the heels of the Internet having destroyed the readership and advertising revenue of printed newspapers, further advances in digital technology now threaten the papers’ digital ad business.
The Republican Party, in an effort to reduce the size of government and return civil liberties to the American people, has proposed recording users’ online browsing history and IP addresses.
Wait, what? Not only does that stand in stark contrast to their stated values, it also happens to directly contradict their opposition to data aggregation by online behavioral targeting firms, who essentially do the same thing but with more restrictions against using personally identifiable information. Apparently, only the U.S. government is above the law (something I suppose we should’ve learned already from the Bush years).