The Trouble with Gerrold: What the pundits missed
December 14, 2012 —
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Related Search Term(s): Election 2012, Narwhal, Orca
However you voted on Nov. 6 (and whether or not you were satisfied or disappointed with the election results), there are two aspects of the race that the Monday-morning quarterbacks have failed to understand, and this is why so many of them have been caught by surprise. Computers have been changing politics for some time, but this year the differences were profound.
Any election is going to be a test of character as well as an endurance match for the candidates. Sometimes the issues get swamped by a candidate’s personal popularity, sometimes a campaign gets derailed by a series of unrecoverable gaffes—but ultimately, it all boils down to the ground game on election day. Which side can turn out the most voters?
This year, the Democrats surprised even themselves. They ran a better ground game than anyone expected. The Democrats’ secret was a database system called Narwhal. It was a tightly controlled, very secret operation, and it was run separately from the campaign.
Narwhal was the largest and most sophisticated data-processing system in political history. It was actually several systems, working together, but each with its own focus. Its job was to measure and test, report and advise—all in real time. Narwhal monitored millions of registered voters, so the Democrats were able to test their ads, their e-mails and their mailers across large focus groups. They were able to look at polling data in real time across every key demographic and in every state and county and congressional district.
The system was designed to let campaign operatives know where they were being effective, where they had a safe margin, where they needed to focus their efforts and invest their resources, what were the most effective e-mails to send out to specific demographic blocs, and even the best places to buy commercials on cable and satellite channels. The result? The Democrats were able to spend (approximately) a hundred dollars less for each ad placed, and this economy was multiplied by tens of thousands of ad-buys.
The Democratic fund-raising machinery was equally sophisticated. With 6 million potential donors in the database, the campaign could send out targeted e-mails, sometimes asking for donations as small as $3. And while $3 might sound insignificant, as many as a million people might respond on a single day. A million one-click donations (sometimes to the president’s campaign, sometimes to a specific senate campaign or set of house races) created enormous maneuverability of the party’s resources in the swing states.