Wed, Feb 22, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Obama harnessing the power of Facebook in election campaign

It’s the geeks versus the billionaires as the Democrats’ digital savvy takes on Republican cash, and the success of US President Barack Obama’s campaign may lead to the first billion-dollar election

By Ed Pilkington  /  The Guardian, NEW YORK

Illustration: Mountain People

US President Barack Obama’s re-election team is building a vast digital operation that for the first time combines a unified database on millions of Americans with the power of Facebook to target individual voters to a degree never seen before.

Analysts see this as the first White House race in which Facebook will be a dominant force, the first “data election.” The social media giant has grown exponentially since the last election, making it a campaigning tool able to transform friendship into a political weapon.

Facebook is also a source of invaluable data on voters. The re-election team, Obama for America, will invite supporters to log on to the campaign Web site via Facebook, downloading their personal data into the campaign’s data store.

“Facebook is now ubiquitous,” said Dan Siroker, a former Google digital analyst who joined Obama’s campaign in 2008 and now runs his own consultancy. “Whichever candidate uses Facebook the most effectively could win the war.”

For the past nine months, some of the top digital brains in the US have occupied an entire floor of the Prudential building in Chicago devising a digital campaign from the bottom up. The team draws much of its style and inspiration from the corporate sector, to create a vote-garnering machine that is smooth and ruthlessly efficient.

Already more than 100 experts have been assembled, from an array of geeky disciplines: statisticians, predictive modelers, experts in data-mining and online ads, mathematicians, software engineers, bloggers and digital organizers.

At the core is a unified computer database that gathers and refines information on millions of committed and potential Obama voters. The database allows staff and volunteers at all levels — from the top strategists answering directly to Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, to the lowliest canvasser — to unlock knowledge about individual voters and use it to target personalized messages.

Every time an individual volunteers to help out — for instance, by offering to host a fund-raising party for the president — he or she will be asked to log on to the re-election Web site through Facebook. That will engage Facebook Connect, which shares a user’s personal information with a third party.

“If you log in with Facebook, now the campaign has connected you with all your relationships,” a campaign organizer who has worked on behalf of Obama said.

The potential benefits of the strategy can already be felt. The Obama campaign this year has attracted about 1.3 million donors, most contributing US$250 or less — that’s more than double the number at the same stage in 2008. At this rate, Obama is well on the way toward staging the world’s first US$1 billion campaign.

Under its motto “Bigger, better, 2012,” the Chicago team intends to create a campaign powerhouse that will seamlessly fuse fund-raising, advertising and political persuasion. The gamble is that such digital engagement will prove to have a greater impact in November than the mountain of cash from Republican-supporting moguls, such as the Koch brothers, that is likely to be spent on negative attack ads against Obama.

As Sam Graham-Felsen, Obama’s chief blogger in 2008, puts it: “This will be the geeks versus the billionaires election.”

Campaign insiders say the emphasis this year will be on efficiency more than technical wizardry, but that should not obscure how significant this year’s presidential election will be in putting to the test the first custom-made digital campaign.

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