WASHINGTON, November 15, 2012 ― Political wonks and Romney supporters continue to discuss President Obama’s win. Was it Aiken and Murdock’s abortion comments fueling the war on women meme? Should Romney have expended more, or less, resources in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin? Did Romney go too softly on Obama in the third debate? Did Hurricane Sandy and Chris Christie’s metaphorical hug give Obama the last minute support to get the votes needed to win?
Did voter fraud happen anywhere to widen the margin? Has the Republican party failed to attract non-white voters? The questions are many.
While all of these questions and others like them frame where the GOP failed, I do not think they form the core of how and why Obama won a second term. With different issues, different gaffes, and different natural events, the Obama campaign would have still come out on top.
As they like to say, his ground game was superior.
And that game was played with mounds of electronic data that the Obama campaign knew how to use. With advances in computational processing has come the development of rigorous algorithms within a computer science discipline known as data mining.
Developers acquire targeted data to feed comples algorithms. For exmaple, a grocery store may offer discounts if you swipe a loyalty card, enabling a compilation of your shopping habits and the ability for the store to target.
The rise of digital social networking and communication amplified this to media far beyond the grocery store’s shopping cart. For example, online retailers know that frequent readers of romance novels have a high probability of voluntarily clicking on a rental car advertisement.
The Obama campaign used these, and other, techniques to assemble a database of potential supporters who each had their own personal pet issues and personal trigger points that would make them engaged as volunteers, donors, and voters.
Saving Big Bird wasn’t that silly of an idea after all, huh?
Political campaigns have incorporated data mining techniques in the past, but Obama’s campaign did it better, much better, and in a far more sophisticated fashion than ever before. First, there were the youth voters who are likely to support Obama. They participate heavily in social networking and are more likely to respond by liking a Facebook page or sharing a tweet.
Conversly, older generations prefer to keep their daily habits and interests less exposed.
Second, Obama’s campaign was adapt at effectively capturing information about a possible voting base. I first began to suspect this upon learning that phone bank callees targeted by Romney team often said they had already been contacted earlier that week or even that day, which meant a call to a potential new voter was left unrealized.
That only happens with unsynchronized, unmaintained databases.
Obama’s campaign updated their databases nightly and ran daily simulations in response to slipping polls to learn how to boost turnout where it most mattered.
When Dick Morris made his predictions based on what he considered oversampling of Democrats, he concluded the polling agencies had adopted 2008 turnout models. He didn’t know that the Obama campaign data specialists were working in multiple parallel dimensions to turn potential sympathizers into supporters, thus creating the +7, +8, and +9 samplings the rest of us didn’t understand.
Written by Michael Scherer for Time Magazine, Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama Win captures how the Obama campaign moved their ground game. The Numerati, by Stephen Baker, takes a deep dive into the application of data mining all the way from shopping to health care to politics to dating.
You should read both.
Romney was a strong candidate who ran a very strong and convincing public campaign, probably the best the GOP had to offer this election. However, the behind the scenes aspects of his campaign could not match those of his opponent.
For the GOP to win, they need to modernize and learn how to wield computing technology better. They need to coordinate with Tea Party efforts when and where advantageous rather than operate in completely isolated silos.
The ideas espoused did not win this election; digitally targeting the right people did. And with respect to that right now, the GOP are analog players in a digital world.
For this reason amongst others, Andrew Breitbart’s passing struck a huge blow to us limited government types. While Brietbart was mostly known for his ability to confront anti-conservative vitriol in the media, another thing made him truly unique: He understood how the Internet and society affected one another in ways most other people didn’t.
Breitbart wasn’t a computer scientist, but if he were still here today, I’d nag him to assemble and lead a team of computer scientists specialized in machine learning to build the ultimate GOTV strike force.
The GOP has to figure out how to do that if they are ever to regain the White House.
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