Victory Lab

Obama’s White Whale

How the campaign’s top-secret project Narwhal could change this race, and many to come.

Obama campaign headquarters
Obama campaign headquarters

Photograph by Frank Polich/Getty Images.

On Jan. 22, a young woman in a socially conservative corner of southwestern Ohio received a blast email from Stephanie Cutter, a deputy campaign manager for Barack Obama. Years earlier, the young woman had registered for updates on Obama’s website, completing a form that asked for her email address and ZIP code. For a while, the emails she received from Obama and his Organizing for America apparatus were appeals to give money and sign petitions, and she responded to one that required that she provide her name. The emails kept on coming, rarely with anything an Obama supporter could disagree with, and certainly not the type of hard-edged political message that could scare one away.

But Cutter’s note was different. She boasted of a new administration rule that would require insurance plans to fully cover contraception as part of the president’s health care reform law, and encouraged her recipients to see the policy as reason to rally around Obama’s re-election. “Think about how different that is from what the candidates on the other side would do,” Cutter wrote. “Our opponents have been waging a war on women’s health—attempting to defund Planned Parenthood, overturn Roe v. Wade, and everything in between.”

It was a message that sat well with the young Ohioan who received it. She was single, liberal, sensitive to medical costs—but she had never told the campaign any of those things, and the one piece of information she had provided (her ZIP code) could easily mark her as the type of traditionalist Midwestern woman who would recoil at efforts to liberalize access to birth control. Indeed, she found it hard to believe that many other residents of her ZIP code would look as favorably upon a rallying cry to defend Planned Parenthood as she did.

Those who have worked with Obama’s data say that it is an email that would have never been sent in 2008. The campaign knew very little about the 13 million people who had registered for online updates, not even their age or gender or party registration. Without the ability to filter its recipients based on those criteria, the campaign stuck to safe topics for email blasts and reserved its sharp-edged messages for individual delivery by direct mail or phone call. In those channels, the campaign could be certain of the political identities of those it was reaching, because the recipients had been profiled based on hundreds of personal characteristics—enough to guarantee that each message was aimed at a receptive audience.

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.

From a technological perspective, the 2012 campaign will look to many voters much the same as 2008 did. There will not be a major innovation that seems to herald a new era in electioneering, like 1996’s debut of candidate Web pages or their use in fundraising four years later; like online organizing for campaign events in 2004 or the subsequent emergence of social media as a mass-communication tool in 2008. This year’s looming innovations in campaign mechanics will be imperceptible to the electorate, and the engineers at Obama’s Chicago headquarters racing to complete Narwhal in time for the fall election season may be at work at one of the most important. If successful, Narwhal would fuse the multiple identities of the engaged citizen—the online activist, the offline voter, the donor, the volunteer—into a single, unified political profile.

Traditionally, even the campaigns most intent on gathering varied types of data have had little strategy for getting all the information to work together. When computers started regularly appearing in campaign offices in the 1980s, different vendors developed distinct software packages for the varied work that went on there: volunteer-management programs, campaign finance and budgeting tools, voter-file interfaces that could spin off mailing labels or walk lists ready for neighborhood canvassers. The data were stored in different places, often through systems incapable of communicating with one another.

When Obama launched his candidacy in 2007, the departments of his campaign followed this pattern and developed their own repositories for the data they collected. State-level VoteBuilder databases could access rich information about people’s political activities that helped to refine statistical projections about their beliefs. The online databases developed by the firm Blue State Digital contained records of who registered for website and text-message updates, and how they responded to different appeals. The campaign’s fundraising team assembled its own list of donors. The field team had its database of volunteers, called Build the Hope.

“Every unit within the campaign had their little fiefdom and a chief. People were very proprietary about their data,” says a staffer at Obama’s 2008 headquarters. “They started as separate systems because that’s the way it works. No one ever thought System B would get useful data for System A—and we weren’t planning for the long run from the beginning.”

By the time campaign officials realized that they were agglomerating unprecedented volumes of political information—and that it would all become more valuable as it was allowed to mingle across categories—it was too late to rebuild their systems to make that sort of data-sharing easy. Even as the outside world marveled at their technical prowess, Obama campaign staffers were exasperated at what seemed like a basic system failure: They had records on 170 million potential voters, 13 million online supporters, 3 million campaign donors and at least as many volunteers—but no way of knowing who among them were the same people.

By Election Day in 2008, the campaign could come up with only what national field director Jon Carson described as a “Rube Goldberg” data apparatus, that depended on manually moving individual bits from one database to the next. Staffers would take the finance department’s contribution records and flag each donor’s record in a VoteBuilder database, but could rarely keep up with the volume of new people to track. New email signups came in even more quickly; at one point, as many as 100 volunteers enlisted into a virtual typing pool, copying Blue State Digital online contacts into the voter records.

Permanently linking the campaign’s various databases in real time has become one of the major projects for Obama’s team this year. Full data integration would allow the campaign to target its online communication as sharply as it does its offline voter contact. When it comes to sensitive subjects like contraception, the campaign could rely on its extensive predictive models of individual attitudes and preferences to find friendly recipients. In the case of Cutter’s blast, that might mean pulling email addresses only for those who had identified themselves as women on their registration forms and whose voter records included a flag marking them as likely pro-abortion rights.

More broadly, Narwhal would bring new efficiency across the campaign’s operations. No longer will canvassers be dispatched to knock on the doors of people who have already volunteered to support Obama. And if a donor has given the maximum $2,500 in permitted contributions, emails will stop hitting him up for money and start asking him to volunteer instead. Those familiar with Narwhal’s development say the completion of such a technical infrastructure would also be a gift to future Democratic candidates who have struggled to organize political data that has been often arbitrarily siloed depending on which software vendor had primacy at a given moment.

In a campaign that has grown obsessed with code-naming its initiatives, the integration project is known as Narwhal, after the tusked Arctic whale whose image (via a decal) adorns a wall adjacent to the campaign’s engineering department, as first reported by Newsweek. Narwhal remains a work-in-progress. Campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt refused to discuss the project, and the actual origins of their project’s code name are obscure, but at Obama’s headquarters the joke has become that reference to a mammal often called “the unicorn of the sea” has come to accurately describe an elusive quarry. Like much of what changes politics this year, Narwhal will remain below the surface, invisible to the outside world.