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Two Notes on “Person of the Year”

December 19, 2012 Politics-2012 No Comments

» Time: 2012 Person of the Year: Barack Obama, the President

Absolutely no shock in this year’s pick. But there are two particularly interesting passages written back-to-back in their write-up that I find particularly interesting. The first involves the transferability of the newfangled data-mining, data-crunching, hi-tech wizardy that people think won this election singlehandedly (emphasis mine).

The goals were the same as ever: more money in the bank, more door knocks, more phone calls, more voter registrations and more voters at the polls. But the methods for achieving those ends in 2012 bordered on the revolutionary. A squad of dozens of data crunchers created algorithms for predicting the likelihood that someone would respond to specific types of requests to accomplish each of those goals. Vast quantities of information were collected and then employed to predict just which television shows various target voters in certain cities were watching at just what time of day — the better to decide where to place TV ads. Facebook, which was an afterthought in 2008, became the new electronic telephone call, employed to persuade more than 600,000 Obama supporters to reach out to 5 million swing-state friends online with targeted messages in the days before the election. One woman in central Ohio who was living with her young voting-age daughter reported that her house got four different visits on the morning of Election Day, each from a different neighbor making sure both women had remembered to vote.

The geek squad also found new ways to make voters turn out their pockets. They refined meet-the-candidate lotteries into an art form, invented a system for texting dollars from a mobile phone that required entering only a single number and experimented with the language of e-mail pitches until they stung. Of his $1 billion campaign-cash haul, Obama was able to raise $690 million online in 2012, up from about $500 million in 2008. More than $200 million of that came in donations of $200 or less, a 10% increase over the history-making frenzy of 2008. In a campaign that big super-PAC money was supposed to dominate, Obama’s operation proved that many small efforts were more powerful than a few big ones. No one in either party thinks campaign finance will ever be the same.

How much of this survives for future Democrats when Obama exits the stage? Obama’s advisers are quick to say it won’t be around for others to tap. Too much of the Obama coalition, they say, is about Obama himself. It might reject anyone who tries to take up his mantle in a few years. “This organization is not transferable,” says a senior campaign adviser. “The next nominee on either side is going to have to build their own coalition.” But the Obama effort is going to try to live on. Bob Bauer, the campaign’s attorney, has been working on a plan for a new organization — likely to be incorporated as a nonprofit beyond the reach of the Democratic National Committee — that will be announced in the coming weeks. The idea is to create an outlet for Obama’s supporters, more than 80,000 of whom said after the election that they were willing to run for public office. A similar effort stumbled in 2009, when Obama reined in his grassroots supporters to avoid ruffling feathers in Congress. But the one thing Obama has learned in his first term is that he won’t be able to accomplish much in the second without an active outside game.

The algorithms, APIs, custom code, and other gizmos that were created in the course of the campaign were truly revolutionary in how they advanced the hard science that any massive organization should have on hand. But they don’t succeed without the candidate. And the concern of 2016 shouldn’t be whether the next Democratic nominee is capable of putting together the tech team. Instead, the first order of business should be whether they can come anywhere near close to the enthusiasm level among the various constituencies that Obama appealed to. I think a re-read of Eric Bonabeau’s “The Perils of the Imitation Age” are in order … as is another round of cries over the injustice of Bonabeau not extrapolating his ideas into a lengthier book format.

As much as I generally like Martin O’Malley and might be intrigued to hear out Andrew Cuomo and Brian Schweitzer if they choose to run in 2016, I don’t see someone getting into the race from that sort of mid-market platform and making the immediate impression that Obama did from 2004 to 2008. If that’s where we end up having a nominee from (and yes, HRC will have some say in the matter), then it should be interesting to see what narrative is created to talk about the success or failure of technology (in isolation) for a campaign operation.

The second point spotted with interest in the article has more to do with this homage to why some of us developed the blogging habit way back whenever …

He (Obama) began to navigate the issues in the days after the election by scribbling his hopes on a yellow legal pad. Obama has always thought best by writing, and for that reason he struggled to keep a diary during his first term, a task at which he hopes to redouble his efforts over the coming years. “In my life, writing has been an important exercise to clarify what I believe, what I see, what I care about, what my deepest values are,” he says. “The process of converting a jumble of thoughts into coherent sentences makes you ask tougher questions.”

That’s certainly been my experience in dealing with thoughts well beneath a Presidential paygrade.

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