December 4, 2012

2008 & 2012: The selling of the progressive product [guest post by Geoff B]

here was a book about the 1968 presidential campaign, “The Selling of the President”. There should be a new one written about the 2008 and especially the 2012 campaigns. Marketing, backed by an intensive research effort which focused on what might be called “the long tail” of the voting age population was put into practice by a huge collection of data about individual voters and data mining it for one purpose. Electing Obama.

More than 4 million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 did not vote this year. But by applying new voter science, Obama nudged enough replacements in key states — many who were rare or first-time voters — to give him his margin of victory (leveraged even larger by the Electoral College).

The “Analyst Institute”, the research arm.

The AI has been quietly stacked with behavioral scientists, mostly PhDs or PhD candidates from Ivy League schools such as Harvard, Yale,Princeton, and Dartmouth (with Notre Dame and University of Chicago thrown in for good measure). They coordinate with market researchers for various commercial products. AI materials brag that the Institute supports “a community of 400 data analysts and related professionals in collaborating and sharing their findings through monthly Analyst Group meetings and retreats.”
The progressive cause’s analysts look for “sweet spots in the electorate,” gathering as many as 1,000 points of data on each voter, far more than in most surveys.

The “Catalist” development arm.

Although not made public, the findings are shared with the other special organization that Issenberg explains was created to apply the research. This is Catalist, headed by longtime Democrat operative Harold Ickes, a former deputy chief of staff in the Bill Clinton White House.

Catalist’s website describes its mission: “To provide progressive organizations with the data and services needed to better identify, understand, and communicate with the people they need to persuade and mobilize.”

Their website,, identifies 237 clients, including more than 50 Members of Congress, Planned Parenthood, Rock the Vote, the Democratic Governors Association, AFL-CIO, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Human Rights Campaign, ACLU, Emily’s List, Sierra Club, Families USA—basically the entire inner circle of the Left.

Catalist helps its clients to apply the research done by the Analyst Institute.

AI listed its 2009 and 2010 priorities as research that included:

What Are The Predictors Of Persuadability?
Increase The Use Of Impact?Based Communications.
Which Advocacy Tactics Are Most Effective?
How Can We Best Use Social Networking Technology?
How Can We Effectively Engage Surge Voters?
Can We Experimentally, And Quickly, Test The Impact Of Television Ads?
Enhance Skills Of The Progressive Data Community.

According to Issenberg, the funding to develop this research capability came from liberal donors unhappy with the money they “wasted” in 2004 in efforts to defeat George W. Bush by funneling a fortune through 527 groups.

This research and the data that was gathered by not just the AI & CI researchers, not just any and all organizations that support the Democrats, but also data purchased in the private sector that was done for corporate marketing efforts, data mined from Facebook and Twitter, and finding that came from “Dreamcatcher” were combined into useful form to achieve the end of re-electing Obama and holding the Senate in 2012. The system which did this was called “Narwhal”.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Finding that one button to push an individual voter into voting for Obama. Knowing which one works for each individual in your database and constantly expanding that database to encompass more and more of the public. This is the new nano-selling of a President. Marketing him to each voter as exactly what that particular voter wants a President to be, to do.

This requires one unstated thing for the effort to work. The voter targeted must be what is called a “low info” voter. The voter must be one who doesn’t already know much about the campaign so that their knowledge will not override the message the campaign delivers. People scrabbling to survive day to day in a bad economy will tend to not have time to pay attention to politics so Obama has grown more ‘low info” voters for his campaign to cherry pick votes from in 2012. These voters will fly under the radar of the polls since they will likely not be polled and even if they are will be considered as “not likely” voters and so discounted from the conclusions of the pollsters.

There are other things which can be done with this data. Messages could also be sent to dissuade from voting those who are seen not supporting your candidate and undecided about your opponent. This data can also be used after winning election to rev up people to pressure the legislature to sign on to your positions in legislation/negotiations.

This effort seems to make only a few percentage points of difference but that is enough for now. What remains to be seen is what happens if and when reality slams the messaging to the mat. Can perception trump events? The experiment is ongoing.

Posted by Jeff G. @ 12:55pm

Comments (26)

  1. hf and I explicitly discussed the marketing victory of 2008 just in the aftermath of the event. For my part, seeing the mere political emptiness of Obazma’s campaign at the time; the contentlessness of his speeches; the sudden reversals of position for which he was never held to account; the explicit image-making filled in the rest of the story and told us most of what we needed to know to reach the conclusion.

    And yet. I couldn’t see any further than the thinnest surface of these deeds, which is to say, not down into the details of the mechanisms actually used.

    And least of all into the breadth and depth of the political ignorance on which the whole enterprise is made to float.

  2. Made a science of the idea of “all things to all people”, they did.

    Clever. Utterly, shamelessly phony, but clever.

  3. Watch the stupid party now try to replicate it, only to wonder why it won’t work for them.

  4. So the people who sold us GI Joes, Hot Wheels and Transformers during Saturday morning cartoons were actually just warming us up for the real sale.

  5. Good stuff, Geoff.

  6. Think more “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers“. Taking something from another place and sanding down the edges, smoothing it to slide easily into place here, while still using footage from the original blended with new takes that “Americanize” the surface style of product.

  7. Let me take the Sat. morning allusion a bit further.

    The advertising raises money to fund the show, but the show is not the product being sold. The show is itself a way to sell the toys and other merchandise.

    The Democratic party and all the AI & CI & Narwhal are the support to get the Obama “show” on the air. But the “show” is not the product being sold to the public. It is just the way of selling the real product which is Progressive socialism. It creates the desire to have it by making it look like something everyone wants and that it is the smart, stylish, solution to cure all woes.

  8. But I had read on the blogs circa 2000 and for eight or so years thereafter that the Democratic message suffered from the fact that it was complicated and nuanced, whereas the GOP’s message was fit for a bumper sticker.

  9. It also helps a LOT when your opponent doesn’t run against you, never picking at the hot button issues, because you are a good man and all. And probably because he doesn’t want to be called a racist by Ann Althouse.

  10. this data is also very valuable for deciding which media to use to reach which voters with which message in a way that maximizes cost-effectiveness

    even republicans can do that

  11. Similar thoughts from Limbaugh.

    Scroll down and click thru to the linked article at Hot Air, if you don’t care to read the transcript.

    I’d link it myself, but fuck ’em, as they say.

  12. This is just the sort of thing an independent, non-captive journalist would cover in detail, and often, and before the election.

    If there were any.

  13. Re: Limbaugh.

    Since the polling firms have to call 10 people to get 1 who will agree to take their poll maybe they aren’t polling those who were affected by this system. They do get the cult of O! ones since they are eager to share, but the low-info folks may not be into taking the time to answer all those questions. They’re busy trying to keep their heads above water and living lives that don’t revolve around politics 24/7.

  14. All I know is that I was called by polling firms 4 times during the last cycle, and every gawddamned time was right as I sat down to eat dinner. I kid you not.

  15. They’re monitoring you, Spiny. Just because you cannot find the hidden camera doesn’t mean it’s not there.

  16. The last time I got a pollster call, one of the questions was, “What results do you expect from Bill Clinton’s presidency?”

    That’s probably why I haven’t been polled since 1993.

  17. right Mr geoff but they can use the data they do have and create targets and segments and then buy access to people who may have registered anywhere and failed to opt out of data sharing

    then they just make a best guess at which messages will resonate given what they do know about that person

    like you said the goal is to improve messaging to where they skew the results only very marginally in their favor

  18. One thing in the favor of conservatives, Republicans too if they lean conservative not RINO, is that reality is easier to sell over time than a lie which must be constantly reworked, re-targeted as people discover that it is what it is.

    Obama however is the perfect mouthpiece to sell the lie, remembering this:

    “Mr. Obama cast himself as an eager listener, sometimes giving warring classmates the impression that he agreed with all of them at once.” Also: “People had a way of hearing what they wanted in Mr. Obama’s words.”

    Harvard Law Prof. Charles Ogletree told how Mr. Obama spoke on one contentious issue at the law school, and each side thought he was endorsing their view. Mr. Ogletree said: “Everyone was nodding, Oh, he agrees with me.”

  19. I wonder if Facebook and Google shared tracking data with the DNC.

  20. Top people from both were involved in the development of “Narwhal” and “Dreamcatcher” so I’d expect the answer would be yes.

  21. This + NSA = ?

    Obamas all the way down.

  22. there’s several companies what sell cookie data and then you have companies what bridge model the cookie data to robust consumer profiles so google in particular may have kept its hands clean cause of they have to be careful

    Holder justice will fuck google silly soon as look at them, cause of at heart they are still a private capitalist company

  23. the obamaslut running yahoo seems decidedly less cautious though

  24. Well done, GeoffB, and thank you for doing the research.