By Election Day in 2008, the campaign could come up with only what national field director Jon Carson described as a “Rube Goldberg” data apparatus, that depended on manually moving individual bits from one database to the next. Staffers would take the finance department’s contribution records and flag each donor’s record in a VoteBuilder database, but could rarely keep up with the volume of new people to track. New email signups came in even more quickly; at one point, as many as 100 volunteers enlisted into a virtual typing pool, copying Blue State Digital online contacts into the voter records.
Permanently linking the campaign’s various databases in real time has become one of the major projects for Obama’s team this year. Full data integration would allow the campaign to target its online communication as sharply as it does its offline voter contact. When it comes to sensitive subjects like contraception, the campaign could rely on its extensive predictive models of individual attitudes and preferences to find friendly recipients. In the case of Cutter’s blast, that might mean pulling email addresses only for those who had identified themselves as women on their registration forms and whose voter records included a flag marking them as likely pro-abortion rights.
More broadly, Narwhal would bring new efficiency across the campaign’s operations. No longer will canvassers be dispatched to knock on the doors of people who have already volunteered to support Obama. And if a donor has given the maximum $2,500 in permitted contributions, emails will stop hitting him up for money and start asking him to volunteer instead. Those familiar with Narwhal’s development say the completion of such a technical infrastructure would also be a gift to future Democratic candidates who have struggled to organize political data that has been often arbitrarily siloed depending on which software vendor had primacy at a given moment.
In a campaign that has grown obsessed with code-naming its initiatives, the integration project is known as Narwhal, after the tusked Arctic whale whose image (via a decal) adorns a wall adjacent to the campaign’s engineering department, as first reported by Newsweek. Narwhal remains a work-in-progress. Campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt refused to discuss the project, and the actual origins of their project’s code name are obscure, but at Obama’s headquarters the joke has become that reference to a mammal often called “the unicorn of the sea” has come to accurately describe an elusive quarry. Like much of what changes politics this year, Narwhal will remain below the surface, invisible to the outside world.