If you’re a Democrat (although Republicans will have similar experiences), don’t be surprised if a canvasser knocks on your door in 2012 and, glancing at his iPhone, says, “Ms. Smith, thanks for your $50 donation four years ago–and for attending the Joneses’ party on the environment. Care to call voters in Ohio to help reëlect President Obama? Oh, and your neighbor Mrs. Jensen couldn’t get to the polls in 2008. Think you could give her a lift on Election Day?”
As you answer his questions, the canvasser will stroke his iPhone, and a campaign server will squirrel away your answers. Minutes later, you’ll get an e-mail from the campaign: “Thanks, Ms. Smith, for promising to make calls in Ohio.” If you click the link, up will pop a list of 10 Ohio voters whose answers to phone-bank callers in 2008 suggest that they wavered between McCain and Obama and were concerned about the environment. You might call them and–following a provided script–explain Obama’s environmental record, ask for their views on several issues and candidates, and record their answers with mouse clicks on a Web interface.
The next day, one of the Ohioans you’d spoken to–the one who professed strong support for Obama and a willingness to volunteer–will receive an e-mail with the names and addresses of 10 unregistered but voting-age people within a half-mile who, according to a party algorithm that analyzes demographic and consumer data, are likely Democrats. She’ll hit the streets, armed with Ohio voter registration forms she’s downloaded from a link in the e-mail. Another Ohioan–who’d told you he worked as a nurse and strongly supports Obama–will get a different e-mail. It will contain a list of licensed nurses in swing states, and a script for calling them to enlist their support.
On it will go. The night before Election Day, your phone will ring; an Obama volunteer somewhere will have logged in to the campaign’s website to make get-out-the-vote calls. “Just wanted to remind you to vote,” she will say, following a script based on the latest data about you, “and to check in with Mrs. Jensen to see if she needs that ride.”
The next morning, when you drive Mrs. Jensen to the firehouse, you will notice a college student standing near the sign-in desk, quietly tapping her BlackBerry. She is a poll watcher. She will note your arrival and–with a stroke of her finger–erase your name and Mrs. Jensen’s, in real time, from the Democrats’ Election Day call list.
This is a plausible scene from the next presidential election, which will be an unprecedentedly personal campaign. In 2007 and 2008, the vaunted Obama Web operation produced a powerful by-product: hundreds of millions of new pieces of data on voters. That information is now held principally by the Obama campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and a private database company called Catalist.