The Obama Campaign’s Digital Masterminds Cash In –


The Obama Campaign’s Digital Masterminds Cash In –

Political marketing has usually lagged behind commercial marketing. Companies that spend billions of dollars a year developing ways to make many more billions of dollars a year tend to have little to learn from presidential campaigns, which are generally start-ups aimed at a one-day sale. But the (re)selling of the president, 2012, was an entirely different matter. The campaign recruited the best young minds in the booming fields of analytics and behavioral science and placed them in a room they called “the cave” for up to 16 hours a day over the course of roughly 16 months. After the election, when the technology wizards finally came out, they had not only helped produce a victory that defied a couple of historical predictors; they also developed a host of highly effective marketing techniques that were either entirely new or had never been tried on such a grand scale.

Grisolano and McLean and the others were part of a singular breakthrough in the field of television-ad buying, where about 50 percent of the campaign’s budget was spent, or more than $400 million. Previous campaigns would make decisions about how to direct their television-advertising budgets largely based on hunches and deductions about what channels the voters they wanted to reach were watching. Their choices were informed by the broad viewership ratings of Nielsen and other survey data, which typically led to buying relatively expensive ads during evening-news and prime-time viewing hours. The 2012 campaign took advantage of advanced set-top-box monitoring technology to figure out what shows the voters they wanted to reach were watching and when, resulting in a smarter and cheaper — if potentially more invasive — way to beam commercials into their homes. The system gave Obama a significant advantage over Mitt Romney, according to Democrats and many Republicans (at least those who were not on Romney’s media team). Now A.M.G.’s founders say the company is at the forefront of a move to turn upside down the way the $60-billion-a-year television-ad market has functioned since its start. And they hope to get very rich in the process.

A couple of weeks before Election Day, over drinks at the Pump Room in Chicago’s Gold Coast, a safe distance away from the re-election headquarters and its press minders, Grisolano and Erik Smith first let on that there was far more happening in the Chicago campaign office than any of us covering it truly understood. Grisolano told me that the campaign literally knew every single wavering voter in the country that it needed to persuade to vote for Obama, by name, address, race, sex and income. What’s more, he hinted, the campaign had figured out how to get its television advertisements in front of them with a previously inconceivable level of knowledge and accuracy.

To understand how it works, you must first understand the vast technological engine that powered the campaign but remained largely out of view of the public and the press. Messina, the campaign manager, often boasted about how the Obama 2012 effort would be “the most data-driven campaign ever.” But what that truly meant — the extent to which the campaign used the newest tech tools to look into people’s lives and the sheer amount of personal data its vast servers were crunching — remained largely shrouded. The secrecy around the operation was partly because the president’s strategists wanted to maintain their competitive edge. But it was also no doubt because they worried that practices like “data mining” and “analytics” could make voters uncomfortable.

Using data wasn’t new for the Obama strategists. The 2008 campaign developed the most sophisticated system to date to identify tens of millions of voters and place them into useful categories: those most likely to vote Republican, who would be ignored; those supporting Obama — and how likely they were to vote. That system — based on a complicated scoring method that relied on the processing of reams of data — was first devised by an outside consultant, Ken Strasma. But it was partly managed inside the campaign by an economics forecaster, Dan Wagner, who, at 24, helped perfect it for the campaign’s use. Wagner, who was recruited by A.M.G. but decided to start his own venture instead, seems to exist in two realms. One is digital, where he operates like a Dungeons and Dragons dungeon master, trying to shape the rules to the reality he is creating (“I was a Level 14 wizard or something,” he jokes of the fantasy role-playing game). The other is corporeal, where he is self-deprecating about things like his romantic life. (“Hey, I do ‘Big Data,’ ” he says.) His work on the 2008 campaign has been portrayed in a book, “The Victory Lab,” by Sasha Issenberg. “Here’s where I am in the ‘Victory Lab’ — blah, blah, blah,” he said dryly while turning to his chapter in the copy I was carrying when we met for breakfast at the Ace Hotel in Manhattan one day in May.

Wagner dismisses the notion of “romantic war rooms” operating on political gut instinct as outdated and misguided. His is a hard-data system that rejects anything that is not definitively quantifiable. In the Bush era, strategists boasted about how they could predict voter behavior based upon car and sport preferences, a well-publicized bit of political magic that captured the imaginations of politicians and journalists alike. Wagner’s approach, part of a broader move in politics, cut all of that out; why engage in such divination when you have the time and money to just call voters and ask them about their leanings directly? “We’re trying to predict political preference; we’re not trying to predict whether you buy a car,” Wagner says dismissively.

By Election Day, the Obama campaign had done far more to utilize cable and to run ads at odd times of day — who watches “Area 51” on Syfy at 2:30 a.m.? — than Romney had. In all, Obama ran nearly twice as many cable ads as Romney did, 588,006, on more than twice as many channels, 100, according to analysis by NCC Media, which helped both campaigns place spots.

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