Obama’s social media machine focused on fiscal cliff

National Constitution Center

An Internet marketing system named Narwhal, used by President Barack Obama to help gain re-election, may be turned loose to help shape the public debate over the upcoming fiscal cliff negotiations.

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Real-life Narwhals. Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology.

In an interview earlier this week, former Obama campaign operative Jim Messina talked about Narwhal, part of the president’s Chicago-based social media and email operation, and how it could be used to enlist popular support for Obama’s key points in negotiations with the House.

The super-smart database system is credited with helping change the math of how modern elections are run, by greatly aiding the Democrats’ get-out-the-vote effort.

And it looks like Narwhal hasn’t sailed into the sunset just yet.

On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times obtained an email sent to people who were targeted as voters in the general election, explaining how Obama’s tax choices would benefit the middle class.

The Obama argument was presented as a series of infographics—illustrations that can be made viral through Facebook and Twitter.

The same graphics are now on the official Obama for America website with large “share” buttons, tagged with a message to “Share this and spread the word on Facebook and Twitter.”

The debate over the Bush-era tax cuts is a contentious one between Republicans and Democrats, and it led to the current fiscal cliff situation, when a super committee of lawmakers couldn’t resolve the issue last year.

Congress has until January to decide to allow strict spending and tax measures to go into effect, or find another solution.

Messina gave a detailed account to Politico about how Obama for America, an Internet marketing operation with 650 staffers, used Narwhal to coordinate email lists, social media research, and old-fashioned campaigning to get a critical edge over Mitt Romney’s campaign.

A tech staff of 60 people built the massive database system, which was able to target people at a neighborhood level. At one point, 32,000 volunteer staffers were using the system in a get-out-the-vote effort.

After the election, the Obama for America platform can’t continue using campaign funds, and its staffing had been largely scaled back. But Narwhal still exists.

Messina says the original system, built in 2008, worked well as a way to manage messaging in the 2009 debate over health care, but it didn’t help local candidates in the 2010 congressional elections.

However, the growth of social media usage in the past two years, and the sophistication of the Obama for America system could combine to make the outreach effort a player in the fiscal cliff debate.

Messina said a decision about the system’s ultimate fate would be made after the inauguration. But volunteers were using its local Dashboard tools to start a grassroots effort to discuss the fiscal cliff.

“It would be very easy for supporters today to go and start asking people to call members of Congress. … I am sure you will see our supporters start doing that,” Messina said.

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The Romney campaign built a competitive system, called Orca, named after the only natural predator to the narwhal. But the Orca system flopped on Election Day and is most likely belly up at this point.

Online author and mobile marketing expert Tomi Ahonen broke down the impressive skill set of Narwhal, which he said reached 10 million more voters than Orca on Election Day.

In his extensive analysis, Ahonen estimates Narwhal and its related systems cost $100 million to build and had information on 175 million voters.

Among Narwhal’s other tools is an extensive simulation engine that most likely allowed the Obama team to determine how to manage campaign messaging if a gigantic hurricane hit the East Coast.

“The benefit of such simulation is to test out which method works the best, and that, in turn helps guide management into using scarce resources more efficiently. The Obama campaign was always many steps ahead of the Romney campaign,” Ahonen said.

If Narwhal could be programmed to target Obama supporters based on fiscal cliff scenarios, it would indeed be a powerful tool that the Republicans couldn’t match as a way to sway public opinion.

Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.

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