Skip to content
Subscriber Only

The Obama Campaign's Secret Weapon: Geeks

A brigade of developers finds new ways to target potential supporters

Day and night, Will St. Clair can be found sitting in the dark on an exercise ball in the back room of Barack Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters, staring at a computer screen and typing intensely. Exactly what he’s doing in there for all those hours is a mystery even to some of the campaign’s senior staff. They hope the 23-year-old software engineer can use his skills to help them find ways to reassure wavering Obama supporters, and identify new ones.

St. Clair, who worked for a Chicago ad agency before joining the campaign, is one of more than a dozen developers and engineers toiling full time to reelect Obama. Their job is to write software that can make sense of the reams of voter data the campaign collects, searching for information that will enable a not-so-popular President running in a lousy economy to wring out every last vote he can. The idea is to take the now-standard practice of “microtargeting”—where a campaign repeatedly pesters supporters with phone calls, volunteer visits, and fundraising e-mails—one step further by tailoring their message to the concerns of individual voters. A woman who tells an Obama volunteer she’s standing with the President may receive an appeal for a donation a few days later. But the software will warn fundraisers to avoid hitting up that woman’s unemployed next-door neighbor for even the smallest amount of money, which could sour him on Obama for good. Instead, they’ll try to convince him that Obama is on his side. The campaign has come up with a friendly term for this kind of data manipulation: “microlistening.”