How a bunch of data-obsessed geeks created the ultimate digital fundraising machine—and kept their guy in office.
A major drawback with TV advertising—for politicos and businesses alike—has always been in the pricing. "It's not like the stock market where you can just plug it in and you know the rate," says Carol Davidsen, director of integration and media targeting for the Obama campaign. Local stations can substantially change the price of a time slot even after it has been reserved. So the campaign looked for a way, as best it could, to predict the future.The solution was a program called Optimizer: A team of software engineers at Obama HQ in Chicago headquarters developed a system that collected reams of data on the pricing of TV ads. An analytics team, operating out of a side room half-jokingly dubbed "The Cave," then sifted through the data in search of efficiencies.
The results prompted the Obama campaign to seek bargains outside of the usual local newscasts. And thanks to data it had already collected on likely voters, the geeks had a pretty good idea of where to look. For instance, the analytics team discovered that a large number of registered voters who had avoided watching the debates weren't apathetic after all; they just had young kids and were too busy to tune in. "So then it's like, 'Okay, here are the households that watch Spongebob; what else are they watching?'" says Davidsen. The team used the same approach for voters tagged as non-news consumers or who watched fewer than two hours of television per day. "It was kind of like a secret weapon," Davidsen adds.An armory might be the better analogy: For all the talk of debates and strategy, of Bain and the 47 percent, President Obama was re-elected last Tuesday in no small part thanks to the work of an unprecedented political tech operation. Its edge allowed Chicago to build the most prolific online fundraising machine ever—and spend the cash it raised more effectively. (The campaign hasn't released its final online fundraising tally, but staffers expect that it will exceed the $500 million brought in four years ago.)