Electioneering: Liberal leader Tony Abbott in Victoria. Photo: Joe Armao
The team of analysts pored over data on American voters in a darkened Chicago room.
They examined records of the party affiliation of individual voters and even details on how often they voted. Spending habits, income levels and insurance details were scrutinised, all with a view to personalise the Obama campaign's pitch to every potential voter.
After being returned as President, Barack Obama heaped praise on the small team that played such a central role in his re-election. ''To the best campaign team and volunteers in the history of politics, the best, the best ever,'' he said, ''no matter what you do or where you go from here you will have the lifelong appreciation of a grateful President.''
Different approach: Both the ALP and the Coalition are adopting techniques that have been successful in the US, especially in the campaign victories of Barack Obama.
Now, it is thought similar tactics are being devised in Australia as the ALP and the Coalition seek to learn the lessons of the US experience.
When Australians finally make it to the polls, political consultants following the lead of that revolutionary 2012 campaign will have built profiles of some that are so sophisticated that their voting intention could be graded on a score of 1 to 100.
Should the election turn out to be as close as some polls are beginning to suggest, whichever party wields its database most effectively will have a distinct advantage and Australian elections will be changed forever, as they already have been in America.
Barack Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina. Photo: Getty Images
To get a sense of what is coming, you have to look back to Obama's campaign in 2008. The young outsider expected to be outspent by Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, but he had been impressed by what another Democratic presidential contender, Howard Dean, had achieved using social media and in 2004. So Obama hired a younger staff than Clinton's (which was stacked with old hands from the Bill Clinton's presidency) and spent money on exploring the relatively new technology.
The team found that not only was social media a cheap way of communicating and advertising, it was able to fire up a young support base, and because it was interactive it was ideal for gathering information and for soliciting small donations from supporters on a wide scale.
But on an even more sophisticated level, tech staff
Labor Party election campaigner Matthew McGregor.
were able to build algorithms that could explore the databases to predict which voters were ''persuadable'' and worth the time and expense of approaching, how best to approach them. They predicted who might be interested in volunteering, who might be more likely to donate, and how much they should be asked for. Most importantly they could predict who was likely to vote and how they were going to vote.
Rather than depending on polling and gut instinct to shape messages for broad groups like ''soccer moms'' or ''NASCAR dads'' as previous campaigns had, Obama's machine was learning to use advances in predictive analysis to communicate with voters individually.
With the race won and America's first black president settling into the White House, Obama's Chicago campaign headquarters barely paused for breath - instead it began work on 2012.
GetUp!'s Sam McLean, right, with Simon Sheikh. Photo: Tamara Dean
The new campaign director Jim Messina, a former White House deputy chief of staff, scoured Silicon Valley and US universities for experts in analytics and behavioural science and installed the new team in an annex in the campaign's Chicago headquarters - a windowless den that became known as the cave.
They wrote code that could manage and interpret the volume of information they planned to enter and then started pumping in data. State voter registration agencies provided electoral rolls and in some cases also records of party affiliation of individual voters and even details on how often they voted. Commercial outfits sold them data on spending habits, income levels and insurance details.
As the campaign heated-up phone bank operators and volunteers equipped with PDAs began logging information gathered during every door knock and phone call. Supporters who queued to attend huge rallies filled in surveys providing even more information. At some of these events performances by Bruce Springsteen drew thousands of older whites, while Jay Z and Beyonce ensured a younger mixed crowd attended alongside them.
Inside the cave, the datamine, now codenamed Project Narwhal after the elusive little arctic whale, also sucked in detailed real-time data from new sophisticated set-top boxes used to monitor TV viewing habits, while from those supporters who gave their consent it even milked Facebook pages to study the social networks and interests of millions of Americans. A few weeks before polling day one of the cave dwellers boasted to The New York Times that the campaign knew every wavering American voter by name, address, age, race, sex and income.
Another political operative said that on some key groups used to build models and algorithms the campaign built profiles with up to a thousand separate data points.
With information from the set-top boxes Obama's ad buyers knew when and how to advertise most cheaply and effectively, and with the Facebook data the campaign could even contact individuals to ask them to remind their friends to vote, even suggesting which friends to contact and which campaign messages those people might be best approached with.
By the day before the election Narwhal told Messina that the election was won. It even told him by how much. ''We turned a national election into a school-board race,'' a senior Obama campaign official told The Washington Post after the victory.
The Romney campaign later admitted it had no idea how sophisticated the Obama machine had become.
Australian elections are smaller, less expensive and mercifully shorter than those in the US, so no one is predicting that anything as sophisticated as Narwhal will evolve before the coming election.
But many of the techniques invented or honed in the cave are already being adapted for use in Australia.
As Fairfax reported last week Kevin Rudd's campaign has hired three veterans of the Obama team; Tom McMahon, the former executive director of the Democratic National Committee, Joon Kim of the consulting firm New Partners, and the British social media expert Matthew McGregor.
McGregor, political director for the consultancy Blue State Digital, played a key role in the cave, leading the campaign's rapid response team, which provided instant defence through social media when Obama was criticised, and made fast-turnaround attack ads for distribution on the same networks.
But his team was also responsible for maintaining the flood of emails that issued from the campaign daily. But even this was a sophisticated operation in the cave. The computers that sent the emails also learnt from them, monitoring responses to hone the messages in them more closely. After months of testing, the emails were being directed to specific categories with carefully worded scripts, and their evolution continued right through the campaign.
(Neither McGregor nor BSD would comment for this story.)
Fairfax has now learnt that another firm associated with Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns has begun work in Australia. In the 2008 campaign Ken Strasma worked on the algorithms that sorted voters into useful categories. Later he founded Strategic Telemetry, which went on to work on the 2012 campaign.
Last week Strasma said he was in talks with a political organisation or party (he would not name which) to work in Australia, and that his staff had already begun testing Australian data.
Though there is far less information on individual voters available in Australia, Strasma says the tests show the algorithms work. As it did for Obama, Strategic Telemetry will provide for its Australian clients predictions of voting intentions of selected voters or categories in key seats on a scale of 1 to 100, helping them target campaign resources at the right seats, suburbs and even addresses. He says its algorithms can also help in planning preference deals.
Ideally, Strategic Telemetry conducts 10,000 interviews to build profiles to make models for 1 million voters, but its programs can also scour public databases to harvest nuggets of information from which it makes further extrapolations. For example its machines can broadly estimate the ages of voters according to a first name.
''If you've got two voters and one is called Gladys and one is called Brittany, we know which one is likely to be older,'' he explains.
He agrees the Obama campaign was a once-in-a-lifetime event but he says many of its lessons are transferable. Indeed Strategic Telemetry has already worked in Italy, Canada, Brazil and Malaysia.
Despite this evidence, Australia's main political parties appear reluctant to acknowledge they are borrowing campaign ideas and strategies from the US.
Australian National University politics lecturer Andrew Hughes, whose expertise is in political branding, says the Americanisation of Australian politics is abundantly obvious.
''It is all about trying to be presidential and running campaigns that are totally focused on the party leaders,'' he says.
''It's not so much about party identification any more and it's all about the leaders. That's very American. That transfers across into party communications and that's all about the leader.''
Hughes says rock star-style appearances at rallies and campaign launches gave a clear hint that Australia politics is well down the American path when it comes to election campaigns.
He points to the use of social media and ''test-driving'' campaign ads on You Tube as an election tool borrowed from the US.
And he says, using volunteers who didn't need to sign up to a political party is an American strategy that is starting to take hold in Australia.
Still, the Liberal Party does not agree it is going down the US path with the way it is campaigning. Coalition strategists say Australians are simply more engaged in this election than most previous.
The fact Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is entering stadiums to fanfare and delivering his speeches from inside the crowd while surrounded by well-chosen nodding well-wishers has nothing to with mimicking the Americans, they say.
Liberal Party federal director Brian Loughnane insists the good turn-out at Coalition events can be put down solely to growing public engagement.
The Australian Labor Party did not want to go on the record in comparing its campaigning to that of US political parties. But a senior Labor strategist confirms that much of Obama's tactics were being rolled out in Australia.
''Why wouldn't we? Obama has had phenomenal success with campaigning, so we should learn from that,'' the strategist says.
''And we have. There are so many of Obama's tools being used by the ALP right now.''
The Labor aligned lobby firm Hawker Britton is more specific, with director Simon Banks insisting both parties were relying on American electioneering tactics more heavily than ever before, but that Labor was perhaps more selective. ''These things are always done by degrees. We take a look at what works in the US and then we apply it to the Australian context,'' Banks says.
''I think that's where the Liberals have got things wrong more than Labor, in that they will simply copy the successful American techniques without adjusting them to the Australian context.
''There are pretty fundamental differences between the Australian and the US electoral systems, most notably that in America voting is not compulsory whereas it is in Australia.''
For this reason the major parties appear to be overlooking American expertise in what is called GOTV - get out the vote.
But smaller Australian political outfits are even beginning to adopt American GOTV strategies.
''Because voting isn't compulsory in the US, a major focus of the campaign is registering voters and 'getting out the vote' on Election Day,'' Sam Mclean, national director of GetUp!, says.
''That's actually a challenge here too - with over a million Australians not yet enrolled to vote, including half of 18-year-olds.
He notes that at the last election the difference between the main parties was just 30,527 votes.
GetUp! is encouraging unenrolled voters to sign up with a tactic lifted straight from the Obama playbook, offering them big prizes. (While the Obama campaign used dinners with the President or Hollywood backers such as George Clooney as incentives, GetUp! Is offering gold bullion.)
Mclean says dozens or even hundreds of Australian political operatives have volunteered on US campaigns in recent years.
Another senior staffer for a progressive group tells of meeting many Australians at conferences in the US designed to pass on the lessons of the Obama campaign.
Australians are not the only ones playing catch-up with the Obama campaign's techniques.
The Republican Party was so shocked by Obama's technological advantage that it has been working to close the gap since the day after the election.
At the forefront of the movement is Phil Musser, who worked on Mitt Romney's failed 2008 primary bid, and was one of the first on the conservative side of American politics to recognise the new significance of digital campaigning.
Since last November's election Musser has cofounded a consultancy called Media Group of America and claims to have developed digital campaigning technology that will provide its conservative clients with many of the same tools that Obama 2012 developed.
Musser says that Obama's campaign machine was extraordinary, but built for purpose, while MGE's technology, now going through final testing, can be quickly customised for clients around America and the world. ''If you can give us an Excel spreadsheet with data we can get to work.''