Tech in Politics – Election 2012 Roundup

November 25, 2012

Following the technology-laden 2012 election, I have read hundreds of articles, blogs and tweets about how technology was used by both sides. Precious little has been written about the Romney campaign’s effort, which is unfortunate because they certainly did some innovative work.

Below are several of the best articles I’ve found since the election that shed some light on how technology was used by the presidential campaigns and outside organizations. These articles are arranged in reverse-chronological order, except for a couple of “Priority Reading” articles at the top that really do a great job of summarizing the digital efforts of the campaigns.

For those looking for a cliff-notes summary of these articles and more of a “now what?” approach to tech-based advocacy, please take a moment to read my column, “A GOP Tech Future” for some thoughts on how we move forward from this moment.

In addition to these articles, I highly recommend reading The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg. Many of the articles below (those from Slate) are his. He leans Left, but his position has given him terrific access to explore the innovations of the progressive movement that conservatives should study. His book does a great job reviewing the development of experiments and technology in politics over the past century.

If you have others that should be added, please leave them in the comments below. We’ll keep this list updated as new material becomes available.

Update: Katie Harbath with Facebook has created a 600-page Scribd document with hundreds of articles about data, digital, and technology in the 2012 election dating all the way back to Tim Pawlenty’s announcement — via Twitter — that he was running for President. Check it out here.

Priority Reading

Obama Wins: How Chicago’s Data-Driven Campaign Triumphed

TIME | 11/7/12
But from the beginning, campaign manager Jim Messina had promised a totally different, metric-driven kind of campaign in which politics was the goal but political instincts might not be the means. “We are going to measure every single thing in this campaign,” he said after taking the job. He hired an analytics department five times as large as that of the 2008 operation, with an official “chief scientist” for the Chicago headquarters named Rayid Ghani, who in a previous life crunched huge data sets to, among other things, maximize the efficiency of supermarket sales promotions.

When the Nerds Go Marching In

The Atlantic | 11/16/12
The campaign had turned out more volunteers and gotten more donors than in 2008. Sure, the field organization was more entrenched and experienced, but the difference stemmed in large part from better technology. The tech team’s key products — Dashboard, the Call Tool, the Facebook Blaster, the PeopleMatcher, and Narwhal — made it simpler and easier for anyone to engage with the President’s reelection effort.

How President Obama’s campaign used big data to rally individual voters.

MIT Technology Review | 12/19/12
After the voters returned Obama to office for a second term, his campaign became celebrated for its use of technology—much of it developed by an unusual team of coders and engineers—that redefined how individuals could use the Web, social media, and smartphones to participate in the political process. A mobile app allowed a canvasser to download and return walk sheets without ever entering a campaign office; a Web platform called Dashboard gamified volunteer activity by ranking the most active supporters; and “targeted sharing” protocols mined an Obama backer’s Facebook network in search of friends the campaign wanted to register, mobilize, or persuade.

But underneath all that were scores describing particular voters: a new political currency that predicted the behavior of individual humans. The campaign didn’t just know who you were; it knew exactly how it could turn you into the type of person it wanted you to be.

Election 2012 Technology-Related Articles

“Failure Was Not an Option.” Harper Reed Talks About the Obama 2012 Re-election Campaign

Technori | 1/30/13
Some of the key factors [Harper Reed] attributes the re-election win were: (1) the emphasis placed on user experience, (2) the carryover knowledge from the team that worked on the 2008 campaign, (3) the tech team’s use of what Reed calls “game days”—they spent the entire month of October practicing what to do if something failed, so that they’d be fully prepared in case something actually did, and (4) a ton of A/B testing.

I Am Not Big Brother

New York Times | 12/5/12
There are two categories of online data: information users provide explicitly, and stuff they communicate implicitly through their behavior. The explicit data includes e-mails and comments that users share directly. The implicit data comes from “click tracking,” which tells a campaign what buttons are getting pressed and how often. Combined, these two categories of data allow a campaign to put together an online experience that will resonate with as many people as possible, but also to customize the experience so that you are more likely to encounter content that’s relevant to you.

The science Behind Those Obama Campaign Emails

Businessweek | 11/29/12
One fascination in a presidential race mostly bereft of intrigue was the strange, incessant, and weirdly overfamiliar e-mails that emanated from the Obama campaign. Anyone who shared an address with the campaign soon started receiving messages from Barack Obama with subject lines such as “Join me for dinner?” “It’s officially over,” “It doesn’t have to be this way,” or just “Wow.” Jon Stewart mocked them on the Daily Show. The women’s website the Hairpin likened them to notes from a stalker. But they worked.

The 2016 campaign: A tech forecast

Politico | 11/27/12
Mark Bernstein, who works for a small new media developer and publisher, takes a few guesses at what the new media and tech landscape will look like 4 years from now — and how it might affect the 2016 presidential campaign.

Romney Digital Team to Unload Data, Campaign Details to RNC

AdAge | 11/27/12
The Romney camp is in the process of handing over hundreds of pages of documentation in binders detailing its digital campaign efforts throughout the 2012 season. The digital team hopes it becomes a valuable source of practical information showing what was done online, what worked and what didn’t.

The Obama Campaign’s Legacy: Listen, Experiment, and Analyze Everything

TechPresident | 11/21/12
The big story of the 2012 Obama campaign was not just that staffers were able to weave together information about voters using data integration in ways that had bedeviled the campaign in 2008. Nor was it the campaign’s ability to test nearly every tactic, from email subject lines and landing pages to the scripts that volunteers read from as they went door to door. If any one engine powered the campaign down its road to victory, it was the system that turned every voter, field staffer and grassroots volunteer into a political signal — and the mix of technology and analysis that allowed Obama’s Chicago headquarters to find those signals among all the noise.

Jim Messina: What I learned in the election

Politico | 11/20/12
The campaign shifted some of its resources to online advertising, an arena that provided more targets and a wealth of specific users. “Television is still the dominant media, but I think online will catch up very quickly,” Messina said. “I think it already is for young voters out there. The next presidential, whoever has my job the next time, is going to have to decide what percentage you spend online.”

A GOP Tech Future

A Line of Sight | 11/19/12
Republicans can win this fight with a comprehensive agenda that goes beyond the technology of the day and looks more broadly at how their organizations and operatives innovate to run campaigns in the 21st century. This requires an agenda beyond just the campaigns, the operatives, and the donors. It involves changing the paradigm of how these entities interact and work with other organizations across the center-right free-market movement. (Disclaimer: This is an article I wrote.)

6 Ways Amazon Cloud Helped Obama Win

InformationWeek | 11/19/12
Much has been made about President Obama’s tech-savvy 2012 campaign, which made use of technologies from big data to social media to email to bring votes home for Obama. Across those efforts, cloud computing played a key part in powering the campaign.

The GOP Talent Gap

The Atlantic | 11/16/12
A disproportionate amount of postmortem coverage has focused on Obama’s data and technology operation which was bigger — though also qualitatively different — than 2008. Instead of relying on the magic of a youthful candidate, big rallies, and racking up a billion minutes of view time on YouTube, Obama 2012 used quantitative analysis to squeeze out every last advantage it could, reflecting the “grind it out” mentality of this year’s campaign. Given the attention, it would be only natural for GOP donors and operatives looking for ways to win in 2014 and 2016 to fixate on replicating the Big Data campaign and seek out data scientists, behavioral economists, and silver-bullet technologies in an effort to catch up.

Who’s responsible for Project ORCA? Romney campaign silent

The Daily Caller | 11/16/12
As of Friday, 10 days have passed since the Romney campaign lost the presidential election for Republicans, and the makers of the campaign’s over-hyped and extremely secretive Project ORCA election reporting tool are still nowhere to be found.

Exclusive: Obama’s 2012 Digital Fundraising Outperformed 2008

TIME | 11/15/12
In total, according to new campaign calculations acquired exclusively by TIME, the Obama team raised about $690 million digitally in 2012, up from about $500 million in 2008, according to a senior campaign adviser. That number includes all contributions that were given electronically, including some donations that were generated by high-dollar fundraisers but logged through the website.

Which consultants built Romney’s “Project Orca?” None of them

Ars Technica | 11/15/12
In the wake of Mitt Romney’s Election Day defeat, frustration with the Romney campaign’s get-out-the-vote effort led to reports of an IT meltdown. Project Orca, the system the Romney campaign used to connect to an army of volunteer poll-watchers tracking voter turnout, quickly became a target for conspiracy theorists, even leading to accusations of sabotage by contract developers. How could the Romney campaign spend so much on technology consultants and yet see its vaunted app fail when it was needed the most? The truth, according to sources familiar with the matter, is that the applications powering Orca were developed by an internal “skunkworks,” one made up of both campaign staffers and volunteers—not by a big-name consulting firm.

Under the Hood of Team Obama’s Tech Operation

Mother Jones | 11/15/12
Post-election, the conservative base has focused much of its ire on Team Romney’s failed voter-turnout tool (code name: Project ORCA). But the gap in per-ad spending is perhaps more illustrative of the technological chasm between the rival campaigns—a gap that Team Obama leveraged into an edge in fundraising, messaging, and, ultimately, the election. It was no accident. Over the last four years, the Obama campaign has sought to turn the art of campaigning into something closer to a science.

Jim Messina offers his tips on how Barack Obama’s campaign team beat Mitt Romney

Slate | 11/15/12
Every morning when Barack Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina turned on his computer, he saw a snapshot of the state of the race. Campaign software engineers had built him a dashboard that showed how many doors volunteers had knocked on the night before, how many phone calls they had made, how much money had been raised, and what was moving on Twitter and other social networks. It also included a feed of traditional news feeds. “That allowed me to get a good sense in the morning of what was going on in our world.”

Built to win: Deep inside Obama’s campaign tech

Ars Technica | 11/14/12
The reelection of Barack Obama was won by people, not by software. But in a contest as close as last week’s election, software may have given the Obama for America organization’s people a tiny edge—making them by some measures more efficient, better connected, and more engaged than the competition. That edge was provided by the work of a group of people unique in the history of presidential politics: Team Tech, a dedicated internal team of technology professionals who operated like an Internet startup, leveraging a combination of open source software, Web services, and cloud computing power.

Obama campaign took unorthodox approach to ad buying

Washington Post | 11/14/12
When President Obama’s campaign strategists tried to squeeze every last drop of efficiency out of their $300 million television advertising budget, they chose to do something unorthodox: They stopped worrying about which shows featured their commercials. Most campaigns buy airtime based on television ratings for different demographic groups, selecting the shows they think likely voters will watch. In their attempts to find new efficiency, Obama aides threw that conventional wisdom out the window — instead choosing airtime only by the time of day and the channel. The result was a system they called “the optimizer” that took into account information gathered from door-knockers and phone canvassers when they picked whether to advertise on, say, ESPN or TV Land.

The technology future of the conservative movement

Daily Caller | 11/14/12
The reason professional operatives on the right have not succeeded in fully leveraging these abilities isn’t due to lack of smarts or desire to win.  The Right is capable of technological advances. The Right invented political micro-targeting, won awards for design in the 90’s and built database overlays, an advanced method of digital ad targeting. In 2010, as Geoff Livingston noted in, the RNC had the very beginnings of a platform designed to grow into what Team Obama employs. Nurturing that platform required continuity, time and attention.

Big Data’s Big Moment

The Daily Caller | 11/13/12
It’s no surprise that we’re collectively taken aback by the accuracy of Nate Silver’s predictions, along with the predictions of the few other researchers who follow similar models. After all, so many months of punditry, analyses, and polls were instantly overshadowed by the application of data functions to the Electoral College. Quite simply, it’s big data’s big moment. But rather than breathlessly celebrating this achievement, we should take a step back and realize that Nate Silver’s prediction isn’t an anomaly. Rather, it’s a straightforward example of what big data can, and does, achieve on a daily basis.

Everything We Know (So Far) About Obama’s Big Data Tactics

Propublica | 11/13/12
For the past nine months, we’ve been following how political campaigns use data about voters to target them in different ways. During the election, the Obama campaign, which had assembled a cutting-edge team of data scientists, developers, and digital advertising experts, refused to say anything about how it was targeting voters.

Obama System, ‘the Optimizer,’ Targeted TV Viewers for Support

New York Times | 11/12/12
It was called “the Optimizer,” and, strategists for President Obama say it is how he beat a better-financed Republican opposition in the advertising war. Culling never-before-used data about viewing habits, and combining it with more personal information about the voters the campaign was trying to reach and persuade than was ever before available, the system allowed Mr. Obama’s team to direct advertising with a previously unheard-of level of efficiency, strategists from both sides agree.

Election Over, Political Campaigns Reveal Their Bags of Tricks

AdAge | 11/12/12
Successful political campaigns, Barack Obama’s among them, put real-time data to use rapidly and aggressively. Corporate brands could learn a thing or two, whether it’s how data can incite speedier decisions, or the ways offline info can benefit online messaging.

Romney digital director pushes back against critics of data and IT failure

The Daily Caller | 11/12/12
Many younger Republican operatives have vented  their frustration to the media in the days following last week’s election. They say that Boston failed to many lessons from the 2008 presidential election, including the importance of social media. Some Republicans are saying this ineffective digital operation ultimately cost the campaign thousands of votes in the final hours of Election Day.

How Obama’s tech team helped deliver the 2012 election

GigaOM | 11/12/12
When it comes to presidential elections, it helps to know your way around some disruptive technologies. The team of technologists that helped re-elect Barack Obama – led by Obama for America CTO Harper Reed and comprised largely of other political novices and accomplished hackers — certainly had that going for them. However, when the prize is the highest office in the land — and possibly the fate of the free world — it also helps to know your role.

Mitt Romney’s Project ORCA Failure: Broken ORCA App Cost Him Thousands Of Votes

Huffington Post | 11/10/12
A week before the presidential election, the campaign for GOP nominee Mitt Romney announced that it had been assembling a sophisticated poll-monitoring system, which would use smartphone technology to receive more data in real time, and redirect resources to areas where there may be low turnout to get voters there to the polls. Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul told The Huffington Post in a statement, that Project ORCA would give the campaign an “enormous advantage on Election Day,” but the app turned out to be a failure and cost Romney what could have been thousands of votes, according to The Verge.

Inside Team Romney’s whale of an IT meltdown

Ars Technica | 11/9/12
It was supposed to be a “killer app,” but a system deployed to volunteers by Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign may have done more harm to Romney’s chances on Election Day—largely because of a failure to follow basic best practices for IT projects. Called “Orca,” the effort was supposed to give the Romney campaign its own analytics on what was happening at polling places and to help the campaign direct get-out-the-vote efforts in the key battleground states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa, and Colorado.

Romney’s Get Out the Vote Fiasco

Commentary Magazine | 11/9/12
The Wednesday before the election, Mitt Romney sent a special message to volunteers about a special project his campaign was working on: “With state of the art technology and an extremely dedicated group of volunteers, our campaign will have an unprecedented advantage on election day.” What is it they say about something that sounds too good to be true? It probably is. That was the case with the Romney campaign’s “Project ORCA.”

Killer fail: how Romney’s broken Orca app cost him thousands of votes

The Verge | 11/9/12
By the time election night was over, though, Orca was an embarrassment. Reporter Erin McPike tweeted that the app had crashed, rendering it unusable. A source in Boston said the tool had been hacked, and an anonymous aide corroborated the reports of crashes, telling The Washington Examiner that “somebody said Orca is lying on the beach with a harpoon in it.” According to others, the problems didn’t stop there: even before the crash, users had trouble just finding the site or logging in. Few blamed Romney’s loss on Orca’s failure, but it was a final blow to his attempt to outmatch the notoriously tech-savvy Obama campaign. So what went wrong?

The Unmitigated Disaster Known As Project ORCA

Ace of Spades | 11/8/12
Working primarily as a web developer, I had some serious questions. Things like “Has this been stress tested?”, “Is there redundancy in place?” and “What steps have been taken to combat a coordinated DDOS attack or the like?”, among others. These types of questions were brushed aside (truth be told, they never took one of my questions). They assured us that the system had been relentlessly tested and would be a tremendous success.

Project Orca Dies on the Beach

Human Events | 11/8/12
The Romney campaign’s electronic get-out-the-vote effort for 2012 was called “Project ORCA.” It was supposed to be a super high-tech way of getting Republican voters off their tushes and out to the polls. It was, as participant John Ekdahl writes at Ace of Spades in a landmark expose, a staggering failure, as evidenced by the astonishingly poor turnout that doomed the Romney campaign.

Did Romney campaign’s Project Orca sink GOP turnout? Users claim an ‘epic fiasco’

Twitchy | 11/8/12
Among all of the finger-pointing going on in the wake of Mitt Romney’s Election Day loss, one object of blame isn’t even human. Project Orca, the Romney campaign’s proprietary get-out-the-vote software, is getting a lot of attention for failing the campaign when it was needed most.

Inside Orca: How the Romney Campaign Suppressed Its Own Vote

Breitbart | 11/8/12
As Republicans try to explain their Election Day losses in terms of policy, tactics, and strategy, one factor is emerging as the essential difference between the Obama and Romney campaigns on November 6: the absolute failure of Romney’s get-out-the-vote effort, which underperformed even John McCain’s lackluster 2008 turnout. One culprit appears to be “Orca,” the Romney’s massive technology effort, which failed completely.

The Obama Campaign’s Technology Is a Force Multiplier

New York Times | 11/8/12
Both sides in the presidential contest mined click-stream data as never before to target messages to potential voters. But a real edge for the Obama campaign was in its use of online and mobile technology to support its much-praised ground game, finding potential supporters and urging them to vote, either in person or by phone, according to two senior members of the Obama technology team, Michael Slaby, chief integration and innovation officer for the Obama campaign, and Harper Reed, chief technology officer for the Obama campaign.

Obama’s Victory: How the Democrats, burned by Karl Rove, became the party of competent campaigning

Slate | 11/7/12
Tuesday night’s results testify to many dramatic changes, particularly demographic and ideological ones, that mark life in Obama’s America. But within the practice of politics, no shift seems more dramatic than the role reversal between the two parties on campaigning competence. Today, there is only one direction in which envy can and should be directed: Democrats have proved themselves better—more disciplined, rigorous, serious, and forward-looking—at nearly every aspect of the project of winning elections.

Election 2012 is big-data nerds’ gut punch to traditional punditry

VentureBeat | 11/7/12
With the sheer volume of relevant data at our fingertips (tweets, news articles, demographic records, and so on) a pundit’s political instinct can only go so far. “A few years ago the political parties — especially the Democrats — realized that algorithms could be used in politics,” said data scientist Jeremy Howard. Prior to the election, the Obama campaign issued a call for data scientists and turned up at universities like Stanford to recruit talent.

Pre-Election Articles

Obama’s get out the vote effort: Why it’s better than Romney’s

Slate | 11/5/2012
Over a two-week stretch starting at the end of July, the Obama campaign’s analytics department contacted 54,739 voters from paid call centers and asked them how they planned to vote. Obama’s databases already knew a lot about the approximately 180 million registered voters in the United States (and even a bit about those who weren’t registered, in a way that could help guide the campaign’s efforts to enroll them). The goal was to collect intelligence about potential voters’ 2012 intentions and distill that down to a series of individual-level predictions. The most important of these scores, on a range from 0 to 100, assessed an individual’s likelihood of supporting Barack Obama and of casting a ballot altogether.

Obama’s secret weapon: Democrats have a massive advantage in targeting and persuading voters

Slate | 10/29/12
In fact, when it comes to the use of voter data and analytics, the two sides appear to be as unmatched as they have ever been on a specific electioneering tactic in the modern campaign era. No party ever has ever had such a durable structural advantage over the other on polling, making television ads, or fundraising, for example. And the reason may be that the most important developments in how to analyze voter behavior has not emerged from within the political profession.

Tracking Voters’ Clicks Online to Try to Sway Them

New York Times | 10/27/12
One of the hallmarks of this campaign is the use of increasingly sophisticated — but not always accurate — data-mining techniques to customize ads for voters based on the digital trails they leave as they visit Internet sites. It is a practice pioneered by online retailers who work with third-party information resellers to create detailed portraits of consumers, all the better to show them relevant marketing pitches.

A Deeper Look at the Elections, or Not

New York Times | 10/26/12
Along with records for spending by candidates, every presidential election seems to set records for use of technology, and this one is no exception. Digital tools are being used in myriad ways in 2012. The Obama campaign created a smartphone app to help volunteers canvass. Two clever apps will listen to political ads and give users information about the organizations that paid for them: Ad Hawk, by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that uses the Internet to promote government transparency, and Super PAC App by Glassy Media, an offshoot of the M.I.T. Media Lab.

Can Romney close the digital divide?

Politico | 10/25/12
Romney’s online efforts are more technologically sophisticated than the 2008 McCain campaign, but hardly what Moffatt claims is “close to parity with the Obama folks,” several top Republican digital strategists told POLITICO.

Inside the Obama Campaign’s Hard Drive

Mother Jones | 10/2/12
As chief technology officer for President Obama’s reelection effort — responsible for building the apps and databases that will power the campaign’s outreach — [Harper Reed] and his team of geeks could provide the edge in a race that’s expected to be decided by the narrowest of margins. Much of Reed’s work now is so under wraps that it’s literally code word classified—Obama for America (OFA) uses terms like “Narwhal” and “Dreamcatcher” to describe its high-tech ops. Over the last year and a half at the campaign’s Chicago headquarters, a team of almost 100 data scientists, developers, engineers, analysts, and old-school hackers have been transforming the way politicians acquire data—and what they do with it. They’re building a new kind of Chicago machine, one aimed at processing unprecedented amounts of information and leveraging it to generate money, volunteers, and, ultimately, votes.

Conservative groups reaching new levels of sophistication in mobilizing voters

Washington Post | 9/20/12
President Obama’s reelection prospects look better in recent polls, but organizers from both parties report growing evidence that new voter-outreach programs funded by conservative groups could give GOP nominee Mitt Romney an edge if the race is close.

The Romney Campaign’s Data Strategy

Slate | 7/17/12
In the primaries, Romney’s advisers had little confidence that there was much logic at all behind his rivals’ moves, and the two-time candidate outmaneuvered analytically amateurish opponents with well-plotted discipline and attention to detail. Now forced to play catch-up against a savvy incumbent, Romney’s team acknowledges they are not aiming to match what Obama has built in Chicago: A unique, in-house analytical empire that has developed an unrivaled capacity to churn through voter data and translate insights into tactics. Because of this capacity, Romney advisers assume that what they see the president doing in public must have a good deal of sense behind it. “The Obama team had the luxury of knowing exactly what they’d be doing on July 1, 2012 because they’ve been planning for six years—definitely three-and-a-half years,” says Zac Moffatt, Romney’s digital director. So instead of devoting their analytical energies to out-strategizing the president, Romney’s advisers are trying to hack Obama’s code and turn it against him.

The Death of the Hunch

Slate | 5/22/12
If these forays seem random, it’s because at least some of them almost certainly are. To those familiar with the campaign’s operations, such irregular efforts at paid communication are indicators of an experimental revolution underway at Obama’s Chicago headquarters. They reflect a commitment to using randomized trials, the result of a flowering partnership between Obama’s team and the Analyst Institute, a secret society of Democratic researchers committed to the practice, according to several people with knowledge of the arrangement.

Obama’s team of tech gurus to unleash ‘Holy Grail’ of digital campaigning

The Guardian | 5/14/12
Barack Obama’s re-election campaign for the White House is poised to launch its secret weapon: an online tool that the campaign hopes will vastly increase its ability to mobilise volunteers and potential voters across the US.

Project Narwhal: How a top-secret Obama campaign program could change the 2012 race

Slate | 2/15/12
This year, however, as part of a project code-named Narwhal, Obama’s team is working to link once completely separate repositories of information so that every fact gathered about a voter is available to every arm of the campaign. Such information-sharing would allow the person who crafts a provocative email about contraception to send it only to women with whom canvassers have personally discussed reproductive views or whom data-mining targeters have pinpointed as likely to be friendly to Obama’s views on the issue.

Tech Pioneer Harper Reed Becomes Obama Campaign CTO

Fast Company | 6/1/11
If there was any doubt the Obama re-election campaign was going to storm into new digital territory in the upcoming race, it was erased by today’s announcement that it is appointing uber-hipster and tech rebel Harper Reed as the organization’s chief technology officer. What’s most notable about the appointment is Reed’s position is not “head of social media” or “head of digital strategy.” It’s CTO. As in: Go find us the most radical technology out there to turbo-charge this campaign, and build whatever the hell else doesn’t already exist.

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