Could ‘data mining’ help Labour win in 2015?

November 19, 2012 9:59 am

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.

  • http://twitter.com/keithmobrien Keith M. O’ Brien

    I really hate to be that guy, but this is all just copy-pasted or slightly reworded from TIME. http://edition.cnn.com/2012/11/07/tech/web/obama-campaign-tech-team/index.html

    But generally speaking: should Labour upgrade their proceses to data mining, statistical modelling? Yes.

    They should also take heed of the psychologists who were a ‘dream team’ on his campaign. They are some of the most eminent people in the field of persuasion etc.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/health/dream-team-of-behavioral-scientists-advised-obama-campaign.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

  • http://twitter.com/keithmobrien Keith M. O’ Brien
  • Dave Postles

    Facebook? In which Goldman Sachs invested early before the IPO? The IPO of which was overhyped? Which avoids UK tax?

  • AlanGiles

    “At this stage many of you may have already dismissed this approach as frivolous, superficial and vacuous. You are wrong.”

    No I don’t think they are. Who would you offer?. Richard Wilson for those of a certain age and Harry Styles for the under 20s?

  • AlanGiles

    Perhaps a free gift would be a better idea, Mike?.

    Wouldn’t this be better than George Clooney?

  • badtechnician

    I have been trying to do something similar (albeit on a much, much smaller scale) in our ward. Why waste an ever decreasing pool of canvassers and leafleters in areas that haven’t brought the vote home for us in last few local elections?

    Based on the middling amount of contact-creator data, combined with local knowledge and the results of the recent local elections I know which areas are best to target and which to ignore, they may look like good Labour areas but the turnout from their polling station is so poor as to be ineffectual.

    Our local literature is of the lowest common denominator kind too, pictures of councillors and prospective councillors pointing at things next to blocks of text that are not only badly worded but not relevant to the majority of our ward. I have been trying to improve the standard of the leaflets and maximise their effectiveness by targeting the letterboxes they are pushed through.

    As I said, a much smaller scale. I would like to see the party as a whole embracing modern technology and get itself into the very early 2000s if it is unable to get into the 2010s. Large chunks of our vote are not computerised and large chunks of our vote are averse to pointing at things leaflets, we need to target each group differently and engage with them in different ways.

    I think my main gripe may be at constituency level and the hegemony that has built up there but from talking to people in other constituencies I think it is a common theme, direction needs to come from the top down as it is becoming increasingly difficult to instigate change upwards.

  • Steve Buckingham

    The Contact Creator team at Head Office have been quietly mining data since at least 2007. This isn’t something we need to learn from the Democrats.

    Labour, the only party with an effective national database, is not only ahead of other UK parties but probably has the most integrated data of any party. People who have used VAN and Contact Creator confirm that VAN may be prettier but Contact Creator has more analytical, reporting and polling capability.

    Of course we could always source more data (with the human resources or budget) but we really are leaders in this field.

  • markfergusonuk

    A good point Steve, although as an organiser at the last election I often found Contact Creator incredibly difficult to use…

    • Sue Macmillan

      That is a slightly different point though, isn’t it Mark? With any tech system there is always a tension between it being easy to use and the depth of data/functionality that exists within it. Is anyone claiming that the Obama campaign mastered both within the same system?

      • markfergusonuk

        I think for me the difference is between centralised use of data and use of data on the ground. My feeling is that the Obama campaig managed to sue data on the ground very effectively, whereas in the Labour Party data tends to feel more like something which is managed centrally.

        Although that may just be from an ex-organiser’s POV rather than an objective fact!

        • Steve Buckingham

          Possibly one reason for the perceived better use of data by the Obama campaign, beyond it purely being perception, is in fact less to do with local enablement than the fact they they were essentially running one campaign for one politician.

          On that basis there is much stronger scope for a command and control structure where decisions can be made centrally and informed by dedicated analysts. In the UK campaigns will, rightly, be a balance between central party objectives (and control) and the need to allow local parties control of their own destiny in a world of many candidates and local parties working in partnership to marry up local and national objectives.

    • Steve Buckingham

      I think we’d all agree that usability was an issue, though not a show stopper, and that was a big focus of work post the general election. I think good progress has been made and I especially like the new suggested selection features that the Contact Creator team have introduced. Also really good progress has been made on roadgroups, data entry and report speed.

      But you’ll appreciate that data mining never really depended on the front end. Even for local users the mining capability is really in a SSRS client – which is very powerful and friendly although it does require some training, for which the party has an excellent course.

      One area where the UK benefits over the US is through the unity of our campaign data. In the US it is rare to get co-ordination even between different campaigns taking place at the same time, e.g. Senate and Presidential races, and in some places there is a positive incentive to delete records between campaigns (otherwise previous spend can count to future campaigns).

      So although we may lack US style funds for the same level of commercial data and US funds for unlimited analysts we have a much richer source of Voter ID and related information and I believe this helps deliver a more powerful overall package.

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