Harper Reed went from running a T-shirt community to running digital operations for Obama’s reelection campaign. Inside the team’s top-secret efforts to refine voter targeting to a granular (or: “creepy”) level:
By the 2000 election, political data firms like Aristotle had begun purchasing consumer data in bulk from companies like Acxiom. Now campaigns didn’t just know you were a pro-choice teacher who once gave $40 to save the endangered Rocky Mountain swamp gnat; they also could have a data firm sort you by what type of magazines you subscribed to and where you bought your T-shirts. The fifth source, the increasingly powerful email lists, track which blasts you respond to, the links you click on, and whether you unsubscribe.
In the past, this information has been compartmentalized within various segments of the campaign. It existed in separate databases, powered by different kinds of software that could not communicate with each other. The goal of Project Narwhal was to link all of this data together. Once Reed and his team had integrated the databases, analysts could identify trends and craft sharper messages calibrated to appeal to individual voters. For example, if the campaign knows that a particular voter in northeastern Ohio is a pro-life Catholic union member, it will leave him off email blasts relating to reproductive rights and personalize its pitch by highlighting Obama’s role in the auto bailout—or Romney’s outsourcing past.