The Obama campaign and data

April 4th, 2013 at 2:00 pm by David Farrar

The Political Marketing Group asked me to do an article for their March newsletter. There might be some wider interest in it, so I thought I would blog it here also:

was re-elected for a number of reasons including the quality of the candidates, their policies and their records. But one of the reasons was also the quality of their campaigns, and the Obama’s campaign use of big data to bring a new level of sophistication to political marketing.

The days of campaigns being about getting the best coverage on the 6 pm news every night are well and truly over. By 6 pm, many people already know how the campaign has gone for candidates. The buzz on Twitter has often made it clear how the day’s happenings will be reported.

The Obama campaign used data to divide voters into three categories. Those who were not worth pursuing who were left alone, those who were moderate supporters who might donate if asked and those who were strong supporters who might become activists.

They used research to survey millions of voters so they could sort them into the three categories. The research was a mixture of postal surveys, phoning and visiting. This data was supplemented by social media data and advertising.

An interactive Facebook video would depict to individuals how the President’s policies would help them and their friends. But the real purpose of the video was to get their permission to siphon off data about all their friends so they could be matched to their state voting records.

Having collected so much data on voters, the Obama campaign then used it to personalise online advertisements and messages. Their data told them the most appealing celebrity for middle-aged women on the East Coast was Sarah-Jessica Parker so they used her to appeal for their votes.

Having done badly in 2010 due to low turnout, Obama’s campaign focused on identifying those who voted for him in 2008 and ensuring they voted again. Every voter in the country was assigned two scores. One being their likelihood to vote and one being the probability they would vote for Obama. They then calculated for each individual precinct who were the likely people who voted Obama in 2008 and worked on making sure they voted in 2012.

They also used data to test their messages. Up to ten different varieties of an e-mail solicitation would be sent out to a test group. The communication that achieved the highest response or donation rate was then used for the entire population. Almost every single message and communication was tested scientifically. It didn’t matter so much what the creative director though of the communication. What mattered was measuring what impact it had.

Advertising has been the traditional channel for persuasion in political campaigns.  It still remains an important element, especially as they can impact media coverage also. But the lessons from the 2012 United States presidential campaign are that advertising alone is most definitely no longer enough. Data, social media and electronic communications are the weapons now used in a 21st century campaign, and political parties and candidates that fail to use them will struggle to achieve the result they want.

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11 Responses to “The Obama campaign and data”

  1. hamnidaV2 (247 comments) says:

    I think this is just a case of liberals being more intelligent than conservatives.

    I can’t really imagine a group of red necks from Texas or a gang of Hillbillies from North Dakota running a 21st Century Presidential campaign.

    [DPF: Now you're just trolling. 20 demerits.]

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  2. All_on_Red (1,495 comments) says:

    Obama believes in Big Government. That’s hardly a “liberal”

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  3. scrubone (3,090 comments) says:

    hamnidaV2: I think that comment says a lot about you and not much about the topic at hand.

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  4. PaulL (5,986 comments) says:

    Interesting the pilot, analyse, refine thing is a big deal for Google – they are constantly tweaking the google search home page, and they do it to a sample population then measure results before they decide to deploy. Many google employees are a bit lefty – I wonder if they helped.

    And Ham: pointless comment. But absolutely correct: you cannot imagine how people who match your caricature of right wingers could do anything well. Which is a problem with your imagination. Makes you wonder how Labour in NZ keep doing so badly if right wingers are so thick…..no doubt it’s because of a conspiracy of some sort.

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  5. tvb (4,263 comments) says:

    This highly sophisticated campaign left the republicans gob smacked. They did not see it coming. Though to be fair the republicans get a lot of support from computer illiterate old white people who do vote.

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  6. Ed Snack (1,803 comments) says:

    And in the end, the best analysis I’ve seen of the presidential election suggested that the result was best described as being lost by Romney because of those who didn’t vote for him. A potentially election winning number of the core republican constituency did not get out and vote. The reasons for that are manifold, and certainly a better campaign at the “get out and vote” level would have helped, but the major trend I saw was that from very early in 2012 there was a very strong, coordinated attack on Romney as a person that neither Romney nor the Republicans even attempted to answer.

    So my take-aways were that, yes, organization helped, probably made the difference as many voters were at least partially disenchanted with Obama even in his core constituency (so getting them to vote was essential), but also that negative campaigning really works; the truth isn’t important, just smear, and unless vigourously opposed immediately it becomes the message.

    Perhaps too, this is another reason why “lieberals” (in the American sense) are so keen to believe that people are sheep at the mercy of advertizers, because so many of their supporters seem to be exactly that, believing all the lies they are told (and liberals have no exclusives on that, all politicians do it) in a credulous manner.

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  7. Black with a Vengeance (1,732 comments) says:

    It helps too when like Key here against Goff, you have a muppet to oppose you in Romney.

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  8. Fletch (6,154 comments) says:

    Obama also cheated, which always helps…

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  9. Viking2 (11,286 comments) says:

    The Obama campaign used data to divide voters into three categories. Those who were not worth pursuing who were left alone, those who were moderate supporters who might donate if asked and those who were strong supporters who might become activists adicts.
    There fixed that.

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  10. scrubone (3,090 comments) says:

    Ed Snack: good comment.

    Indeed, the election was not so much won by Obama but lost by Romney. Obama won not because he was a great candidate but because he managed to convince just enough people that Romney would be worse. Romney’s problem is that he didn’t take the smear tactics seriously enough, soon enough and develop effective counters.

    But the biggest problem was the media. Right in the middle of the campaign, you had the Benghasi disaster where on Obama’s watch people died horrible deaths with US millitary might within helping distance but told to return to base. Here’s a modern watergate and the press reaction? It’s not important.

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  11. BlairM (2,307 comments) says:

    The whole thing still strikes me as a great tragedy. Made all the worse because it didn’t have to be that way, and it was a lot closer of an election than the media and bare electoral college figures would suggest.

    I disagree that Romney lost because he campaigned badly. He ran the best campaign he could have – it was a very Reaganesque campaign. If he’d run that campaign in the 1980s, he would have carried 49 states, unfortunately he ran it in 2012. Obama won because he ran a campaign like nobody else has ever seen. He got a bunch of people to the polls than normally don’t vote in large numbers – minorities and young people (If the franchise age was 30, Obama would have lost). He figured out that he could run a crazy, hate-filled, demagoguing ultra-left campaign and it would still work because that’s what would get those voters out there, and it worked for him. Completely counter-intuitive. Is it any wonder that Romney, Fox News, and everyone on the Right thought they were going to come through, and wouldn’t believe the polls?

    The GOP has a bigger problem than that, in that elections are no longer fought on substance, candidate quality and character, or policies. This is the American Idol era. People voted for Obama because of how he made them feel about themselves, even if those feelings were completely divorced from reality. I don’t see it as a reflection on him at all – he’s not this dangerous potential dictator or anything, but his supporters scare me. It’s like a personality cult, and if you start talking about his actual policies and actions, it’s akin to heresy. I often wonder if this is how Hitler happened. Did people just start loosing perspective and construct themselves an idol?

    How do you fight that? How do you campaign against that? I’ve no idea. It’s like Weimar Germany. Politics itself is failing us. I only pray that history doesn’t continue to repeat itself.

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