Flashback: Obama, Big Data, and the Campaign That Isn't Really a Campaign (In the Eyes of the IRS)

In January 2013, after the president had been re-elected and before the IRS abuse scandal broke, President Obama's campaign was crowing about two things. It was crowing about its love of all things data, and it was crowing that it had morphed from a presidential campaign into a permanent "social welfare" organization. Its name had to change, from Obama for America, to Organizing for America, to Organizing for Action. But the personnel stayed in place, and the group's massive database went seamlessly along with them into the new future of permacampaigning.

NBC's Michael Isikoff reported on OfA's shapeshifting on January 28, 2013.

Organizing For Action (OFA), the advocacy group set up in recent weeks by the president’s top political aides, has already acquired access to the database under a leasing agreement with the Obama campaign, Katie Hogan, a former Obama campaign aide who is now serving as spokeswoman for the lobbying group, told NBC News. The information will be used to unleash an “army of the door knockers” to back the president’s legislative agenda as well as raise money for “issue ads” – particularly in crucial congressional districts, she said.


Dubbed the “nuclear codes” by campaign aides, the Obama campaign database is widely described as one of the most powerful tools ever developed in American politics. According to published reports, it contains the names of at least 4 million Obama donors – as well as millions of others (the campaign has consistently refused to say how many) compiled from voter registration rolls and other public databases. In addition, the campaign used sophisticated computer programs — with code names like “Narwhal” — to collect information through social media: Anybody who contacted the campaign through Facebook had their friends and “likes” downloaded. If they contacted  the campaign website through mobile apps, cellphone numbers and address books were downloaded. Computer “cookies” captured Web browsing and online spending habits.

Obama campaign managers Jim Messina and Stephanie Cutter made the one-inch leap from the presidential campaign to the post-presidential campaign. They dropped a name tag on one end of a table and picked up a new one on the other end. The IRS never questioned them or the group or its purpose at all.

“The way it’s organized, we legally can’t participate in elections,” Stephanie Cutter, a top Obama campaign official who now serves on the board of OFA, said at a recent Politico-sponsored inaugural event. “But that doesn’t mean the issues we’re organizing around won’t mobilize the American people to vote for things — to vote for that economy we’ve been working for, to vote for immigration reform, to vote for common sense gun reforms. I think we can affect elections, we just can’t legally be involved in them — for this particular organization.”