The Washington Post is publishing excerpts from its reporter Dan Balz’s book on the last presidential election: Collision 2012: Obama vs. Romney and the Future of Elections in America. Monday’s installment was about how the Democrats’ sophisticated use of technology to target their message and get out the vote. After the jump, an account of what the Democrats did with FaceBook.
Early in 2011, some Obama operatives visited Facebook, where executives were encouraging them to spend some of the campaign’s advertising money with the company. “We started saying, ‘Okay, that’s nice if we just advertise,’ ” Messina said. “But what if we could build a piece of software that tracked all this and allowed you to match your friends on Facebook with our lists, and we said to you, ‘Okay, so-and-so is a friend of yours, we think he’s unregistered, why don’t you go get him to register?’ Or ‘So-and-so is a friend of yours, we think he’s undecided. Why don’t you get him to be decided?’ And we only gave you a discrete number of friends. That turned out to be millions of dollars and a year of our lives. It was incredibly complex to do.”
But this third piece of the puzzle provided the campaign with another treasure trove of information and an organizing tool unlike anything available in the past. It took months and months to solve, but it was a huge breakthrough. If a person signed on to Dashboard through his or her Facebook account, the campaign could, with permission, gain access to that person’s Facebook friends. The Obama team called this “targeted sharing.” It knew from other research that people who pay less attention to politics are more likely to listen to a message from a friend than from someone in the campaign. The team could supply people with information about their friends based on data it had independently gathered. The campaign knew who was and who wasn’t registered to vote. It knew who had a low propensity to vote. It knew who was solid for Obama and who needed more persuasion — and a gentle or not-so-gentle nudge to vote. Instead of asking someone to send a message to all of his or her Facebook friends, the campaign could present a handpicked list of the three or four or five people it believed would most benefit from personal encouragement.
Digital director Teddy Goff told my colleague Aaron Blake, “For people who allowed us, we were able to say to them: ‘All right, you just watched a video about registering to vote. Don’t just share it with all your friends on Facebook. We’ve run a match, and here are your 10 friends on Facebook who we think may not be registered to vote and live in Ohio, Colorado, Virginia, Florida.’ ” This was especially helpful in trying to reach voters under age 30. On Obama’s target lists, the voter file contained no good contact information for half of those young voters — they didn’t have land lines, and no other information was available. But Goff said 85 percent of that group were on Facebook and could be reached by a friend of a friend. Reed described another example. Someone interested in health care might click on an ad on Facebook, and up would pop an infographic about health care. At the end of it would be a “share” button, and if the person clicked on it, names of friends the person could share the information with would appear. The campaign knew from its own database which of those friends were most likely to respond to information about health care. “We went through and we looked at all those friends and found the ones that were the best matches for that specific piece of content,” Reed said.
Google’s Eric Schmidt, who offered advice to the campaign, said: “If you don’t know anything about campaigns you would assume it’s national, but a successful campaign is highly, highly local, down to the Zip code. The revolution in technology is to understand where the undecideds are in this district and how you reach them.” That was what the integration of technology and old-fashioned organizing was designed to do for Obama in 2012.
Now the Republicans have started an initiative–based in Silicon Valley, no less–to close the information technology gap.
Is all of this good or bad for our democracy? Does it bother you that the politicians already know so much about you?