Slaby said the campaign took great care with the data it collected and would ensure that whoever takes it over continues to protect it. Such efforts, though, take unusual resources, he said. Building the campaign’s technological systems took nearly two years and, at its peak, involved about 120 paid staffers working with data provided by hundreds of thousands of volunteers.
Republicans once held the edge in using technology to identify and motivate voters. After Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., lost to President George W. Bush in 2004, Democrats invested in building better voter lists and in developing a new generation of political operatives skilled in the science of persuasion and motivation.
Obama’s 2008 election was hailed for its technological sophistication, and especially its use of social media to cultivate energized communities of volunteers. But campaign officials now acknowledge that the operation fell far short of its hype.
With the benefit of four years of lead time, the campaign was determined to make better use of increasingly sophisticated technologies. Driving this was Obama’s data-minded campaign manager, Jim Messina. Among his mentors was Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, who was a regular visitor to what many have said resembled an Internet start-up company within the Chicago campaign headquarters.
The campaign invested heavily in engineers and technologists, including many who had never worked in politics before, and used Amazon Web Services to host the voter database on its cloud servers. The key was a program the campaign built — called Narwhal after a predatory whale whose single tusk makes it look a bit like a fat, finned unicorn — that consolidated lists of voters and donors, often collected over years by state party officials and campaigns.
Narwhal allowed related pieces of software, such as those used by field organizers and call center workers, to both draw on the information in the voter database and continually update it.