Inside Obama’s HQ

By Richard McGregor | Financial Times Magazine

FINANCIAL TIMES - In the most tech-savvy campaign yet, the ‘big data’ push to keep the President in power uses technology to micro-target voters like never before .

Frederick Harris is walking through his front gate in Washington, D.C., after a morning coffee, when he spots me on his front steps, staring at my mobile phone. “Are you Frederick?” I say. “Depends who’s asking,” he replies warily, as you do to a strange man loitering by your front door.

I want to reply “Barack Obama” – and I would only be half-wrong.

It had taken all of a few minutes to download the app designed by President Obama’s re-election campaign at my kitchen table and have it guide me to Harris’s house a few blocks away, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

One tap on the app’s icon for voter canvassing and the screen lights up with a street map dotted with small blue flags, marking the Democrats in the area his re-election campaign would like to have door-knocked. Tap on the flag, and the app brings up their address. Another tap and I have their first names, their age and their gender, as in “Frederick H., 75, M.”

Since its launch this year, anyone can download the “Obama for America” app and see the party affiliation of many of their neighbours, with the ages and exact addresses thrown in for good measure. Harris, who shares the house with his wife, seems unperturbed about any possible assault on his privacy and is happy to provide me with his full surname.

“If they are trying to identify sympathetic Democrats, they have got two in the cross hairs right here,” he says, of him and his wife. “Everything is an invasion of privacy these days. If I got excited about it, I would have had a coronary by now.”

Others are not so relaxed. At the home of 45-year-old “Deanne S.”, in the next block, the man who answers the door recoils as I try to show him his household’s details displayed on my mobile phone. “I am not sure she will talk to you,” he says, and shuts the door.

The Obama campaign has already rewritten the electioneering playbook once, in 2008. For the first time in a presidential poll, supporters could create their own user profile on the campaign’s site and use it to join groups, arrange events and raise money. About 2m enthusiasts signed up, and the Republicans were left eating Obama’s digital dust.

But what was revolutionary in 2008 is normal now. And unlike 2008, when Obama outspent John McCain by about three to one, Mitt Romney and his supporters will have a big money advantage. With the US economy mired in a sluggish recovery, Obama and his campaign are trying to reinvent the game again. So close is the election, and so far has Obama’s stock fallen since those heady days in 2008, that his campaign is relying on their advantage in technology and social media in their battle to stay in the White House.

The sprawling, open-plan Chicago headquarters of the Obama campaign, and their small huddles of twentysomethings hunched around computer screens, look like an internet start-up for a reason. The traditional trappings of US presidential elections are still important stages from which to sway voters, from the razzle-dazzle of the conventions to the hard slog of daily rallies on the hustings and the endless rounds of fundraising dinners. But in the 21st century, campaigns can use technology to micro-target voters like never before.

“Big data are the story of this election – the whole political media ecology has changed,” says Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Forum, who has advised numerous politicians on the use of technology. “The Obama campaign won’t admit to their real level of sophistication, because they have no reason to.”

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