In May 2012 the ‘data geeks’ mining data for the Obama/Biden campaign noticed that women aged between 40 to 49 and living on the west coast were far more likely to donate to the campaign if offered the chance to dine in Hollywood with George Clooney. A dinner was duly organized and the donations flowed in. Using this approach the campaign team organized a similar event for the east coast but this time this data suggested that the most appealing ‘celeb’ draw would be Sarah Jessica Parker. A dinner was duly organized and the donations flowed in.
At this stage many of you may have already dismissed this approach as frivolous, superficial and vacuous. You are wrong. What the 2012 US elections clearly showed is that ‘it’s about the data stupid!’ Two years ago Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina promised that 2012 would be a totally different, metric-driven kind campaign in which politics was the goal but political instincts might not be the means. “We are going to measure every single thing in this campaign,” he said after taking the job. He hired an ‘analytics department’ five times as large as that of the 2008 operation, appointed an official “chief scientist” who would advise Obama’s top team throughout the entire campaign. Indeed Messina’s handpicked team of “quants” regularly briefed the President and his top aides in the White House’s Roosevelt Room. Messina told Time magazine that these briefings were kept confidential as the campaign wanted to closely guard what it believed to be its biggest institutional advantage over the Romney campaign: its data.
Messina wanted to learn from the successes and failures of the 2008 campaign. For example in 2008 volunteers would make phone calls through the Obama website working off lists that differed from the lists used by callers in the local campaign office and the ‘GOTV’ lists were never reconciled with fundraising lists. Messina’s first job was to create a single system that would merge information collected from pollsters, fundraisers, field workers and consumer databases as well as social-media and mobile contacts with the main Democratic voter files in the swing states. This new database could help the campaign find voters, get their attention and allow the “quants” to run tests predicting which types of people would be persuaded by certain kinds of appeals.
The campaign used Facebook on a mass scale to replicate the door-knocking efforts of volunteers. In the final weeks of the campaign, people who had downloaded an app were sent messages with pictures of their friends in swing states. They were told to click a button to automatically urge those targeted voters to take certain actions, such as registering to vote, voting early or getting to the polls. The campaign found that roughly 1 in 5 people contacted by a Facebook friend acted on the request, in large part because the message came from someone they knew.
Much of this can and must be replicated by Labour in the 2015 election. In an election that will undoubtedly be very close with a significant number of marginal and ‘super’ marginal seats any advantage created by data analysis could mean the difference between success and failure. Winning in 2015 should be as a result of which party has the best policies and the best candidates but it could well come down to which party has the better data-crunchers.