If you've been following post-election news, you've no doubt heard about Barack Obama's "big data" advantage. The story has been the unprecedented investment in mining personal information for all kinds of wacky stuff. According to various articles, the campaign used data for everything from inviting donors to dinner with Sarah Jessica Parker to identifying potential voters through their visits to porn sites.
It's true that data was a game changer for the Obama campaign, but the reason is much less salacious than many reporters would have you believe. The campaign built an integrated database, which combined supporters' online activity, actions in the field, and public voting records into a single unified view of every American. On top of that data foundation, a large team of developers built community organizing software that empowered volunteers to become more deeply involved with the President's grassroots field operation.
The result was unprecedented efficiency in volunteer engagement and voter outreach. Supporters who signed up to help online received a personal call from their neighborhood leader the next day. Volunteers called only the most statistically persuadable potential supporters. Anyone who connected their Facebook account to the campaign was encouraged to send voting turnout messages to the specific friends who needed the extra push most. All of this led to more volunteers, more supporters, and increased turnout -- which all meant more Obama votes on Election Day.
But Election Day shouldn't be the end for these systems. We need to keep moving forward, continue the investment, and make them available to the whole movement.
Don't Abandon the Technology
Now that the election is over, funding will be tight. The donations that poured in during the election have dried up and hard choices need to be made.
One option is to mothball this infrastructure and plan to spin it up again for the next presidential election. This approach is attractive from a financial perspective, as no additional resources would be needed in the off cycle to make it happen.
But this would be a mistake. The campaign's advantage this cycle wasn't just bits and bytes, but the institutional experience and knowledge that had been building since the President's primary campaign in 2007. Instead of shelving all these systems, we should make a continued investment in maintaining and improving them.
Republicans are lagging behind Democrats right now on the data and technology front, but after the shellacking they experienced in the last election, there's little doubt that they'll be pouring in resources to catch up. Without sustained investment from our party, our advantage may be erased in the coming years. Not only would Republicans be moving ahead, but without staff to maintain institutional knowledge and adapt the systems to changing technology, Democrats could actually start the next election cycle behind where we're at right now. We need to keep moving forward if we want to keep our advantage on this front.
The technology industry never stops moving forward. Neither should we.
Make Tools Available to All Progressives
An investment in building on these systems offers another possibility as well: providing access to the rest of the progressive movement. Right now, only presidential campaigns have the resources to build systems of this sophistication. The data and technology infrastructure from the Obama campaign cost millions of dollars to build, and even the most well-funded senate campaigns couldn't afford anything close to that.
But with some additional work, the data and tech infrastructure from the Obama campaign could be adapted to offer the same functionality to other progressive candidates and groups, giving them the opportunity to use these systems with their own supporters and volunteers. For smaller campaigns that would have no chance of creating these systems on their own, this could be a game-changing step forward. And beyond the benefit to the Democratic Party and progressive movement, it could provide a path to fund the continued investment, via paid licensing from these outside campaigns and organizations.
A Sustained Tech Commitment for 21st-Century Politics
The roller-coaster of scaling up and scaling down that comes with elections has always been the standard for political organizations. If we want to stay competitive on the data and technology front, this approach needs to be changed. A 21st-century political movement must have a serious on-going commitment to staying at the forefront of technological advancement. With the infrastructure coming out of the Obama campaign, we've got a huge lead in this area.
Sadly, that is not what has happened so far. Since Election Day, the Democratic National Committee has laid off an unprecedented number of technology staff members, some of whom had been at the party for over ten years. The Obama Campaign's technology team is scattering to the winds and returning to industry. The window of opportunity to stay ahead of the technological curve is closing -- our party needs to change course now or risk being left behind.