Cloud and the Presidential Campaign: The Real Game Changer

The 2012 Presidential campaigns ended last week with a number of surprises. President Obama captured both the Electoral College and the popular vote, and while the victory was predicted by many, the surprise lay in how it was achieved, not simply the degree of the Obama campaign’s success.

Part of what propelled Obama to his definitive victory was the very cohesive yet utterly agile organization of volunteers, agencies, and strategists who helped push his campaign into new territory, both politically and geographically, but perhaps more importantly, technologically.

As noted by the New York Times, both presidential campaigns utilized big data (in the form of clickstream data) to target their messaging to both broad swaths of people, as well as individual potential voters. Obama’s real edge in this arena, though, came from his campaign’s approach to cloud and mobile technologies as the primary platform for applications and tools recruiters and volunteers could access to help log new data about voters. Between 2008 and 2012, the amount of online involvement with the campaign grew exponentially; a parallel to how cloud computing has developed in the same time period.

Central to the Obama campaign’s cloud strategy was Amazon Web Services, and the quick scalability and cost efficiency of the public cloud. According to the Times, campaign engineers built about 200 different applications to run on AWS’ flexible infrastructure, including remote calling tools, donation platforms and the campaign website.

Compared to the Obama camp, the Romney campaign’s technical approach relied heavily on a mobile web application (rather than a stand-alone app) that confused ground staff and stymied efforts to turn out new and unreached voters. As Politico reports, ORCA had

“…been reported the system crashed at 4 p.m., but multiple sources familiar with the war room operation said it had actually been crashing throughout the day.”

Whether or not more information comes out detailing why the web app kept crashing, the picture the situation paints points to an overestimation on the part of the Romney campaign that this web app was ready for prime time. Meanwhile, the Obama campaign was able to engage record numbers of voters, deploying big data analysis tools to target the undecided voters in the crucial swing states, among its other tool sets. While fewer people overall voted in 2012 compared to 2008, the Obama campaign proved to be effective in sourcing the votes necessary to ensure not only an Electoral College victory, but a popular vote win as well.

But looking at Obama’s cloud approach, why did it matter? Theoretically, the Romney camp had its own cloud and tech specialists working around the clock to develop cutting-edge systems to help Romney get out the vote for his platform. However, we are left only with the pieces left by the elections result. Obama’s volunteers and campaigners had access to fully tested, highly available and infinitely scalable cloud applications and infrastructures which helped turn the dejection of Obama’s first debate loss into a major and uninterrupted fundraising event, enabled door-to-door campaigners to easily reach potential voters in numerous counties all across the country, and supported phone canvassers with a crash free, low latency calling platform. Each of these was a crucial component to Obama’s ubiquitous messaging and connection with the voting public.

The Obama campaign’s utilization of Amazon Web Services cloud solution was a complete victory for the context of the election, creating an agile, flexible infrastructure foundation for the campaign, a “business” model which could rely on nothing else if not an ever-shifting environment in which to function. As the Times notes:

“Using mainly open-source software and the Amazon service, the Obama campaign could inexpensively write and tailor its own programs instead of using off-the-shelf commercial software.”

The cloud strategy employed by the Obama campaign enabled campaigners to access the tools and resources they needed, all of which were quickly, efficiently, and thoroughly tested at a low cost, one of the central value propositions for cloud. Then, deployed quickly, these apps, platforms, and resources could quickly and simply access further cloud resource provisioning based on traffic (essential for the final days of the race, when interest had reached a fever pitch).

The cloud-centric approach also enabled Obama for America and Blue State Digital (the digital agency behind the Obama campaign) to quickly allot financial resources to bid for online advertising spots, leveraging AWS’ multiple availability zones to quickly, and with low latency, bid on ad spots. Beyond all this, the Obama campaign’s use of Amazon as its cloud enabled it to achieve cost efficiencies previously unrealized by a major political campaign. This was an important step in ensuring that money being spent on infrastructure did not dwarf other necessities of campaign expenditure, since so much of this last election’s narrative centered on the heaps of cash being pushed into both campaigns by outside groups.

In the end, the Obama campaign was outspent, but not outdone. While ORCA crashed, Obama’s cloud strategy carried his campaigners, contributors, and supporters to victory. The cloud approach set forth by this last election is one of the best examples of how to leverage a cloud to empower any organization in new and powerful ways, accounting for shifting conditions and needs. If someone can win a presidency through a cloud-centric approach, what can it do for your business?

By Jake Gardner

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