Big Data and the U.S Presidential Campaign

On Facebook, President Obama has over 27 million followers to Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s 1.9 million, giving the President an edge in digital campaigning.

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On Facebook, President Obama has over 27 million followers to Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s 1.9 million, giving the President an edge in digital campaigning.

Data analytics is revolutionizing the entrenched institution of politics in the U.S.

First in the 2008 “Obama for America” campaign and now in the run up to the 2012 presidential elections, President Barack Obama and his team — comprised in part by a crack group of techies — is changing the way campaigns operate.

A recent Politico article, “Obama’s Data Advantage,” sums up Obama for America’s groundbreaking analytics efforts:

The depth and breadth of the Obama campaign’s 2012 digital operation — from data mining to online organizing — reaches so far beyond anything politics has ever seen, experts maintain, that it could impact the outcome of a close presidential election. It makes the president’s much-heralded 2008 social media juggernaut — which raised half billion dollars and revolutionized politics — look like cavemen with stone tablets.

“It’s all about the data this year and Obama has that,” says Andrew Rasiej, a technology strategist and publisher of TechPresident. “More and more accurate data means more insight, more money, more message distribution, and more votes.”

What the Obama for America reelection team has done is hire a gaggle of statisticians, data miners, mathematicians and predictive modelers — along with some top digital brass, according to The Guardian — to tap every bit of data they can get their dexterous fingers on, from Facebook friend lists to campaign field notes. The goal: Create a digital campaign geared toward the connected set.

Does business have something to learn from the novel applications of big data in the political realm?

Patrick Ruffini, a Republican Party political strategist and founding partner of Engage, LLC, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, thinks so. Ruffini has shaped digital strategy for the last three U.S. national elections and served as eCampaign Director for the Republican National Committee. He also does consulting work with Fortune 500 companies, technology startups and issue advocacy campaigns.

The key for both businesses and politicians, he says, is to look beyond the data they own.

“There is a tendency to say, ‘let’s analyze our own data.’ But how do you compare that to other big data sets?” says Ruffini. “If I am doing ‘get out the vote’ calls and 65 percent of the people I speak with say they are going to vote for me, how do I know what the bias is, if the organization is systemically biased? Internally, our numbers look great, the data is great, but often the data is skewed. How do you solve for that skew?”

Ruffini believes objectivity should be injected into big data projects. “I view the challenge as one of getting away from biased sources of information,” he says.

CNN Tech‘s “How Obama’s Data-Crunching Prowess May Get Him Re-elected” notes the Obama campaign’s effectiveness at master data management. The Obama team has broken down information barriers to the point where field operations, fundraising and other divisions share data fairly seamlessly. One hand knows what the other is doing. One reason they’ve been able to do this, of course, is that they’ve built a digital organization from the ground up. That’s not always a feasible approach in companies with ensconced divisions and technologies.

The campaign has also been effective at reaching out through social media to connect with supporters and those supporters’ networks of friends.

“I love what the Obama campaign has been doing,” says Ruffini. “I look at my side and I wish there were some data scientists that can help us do the same.”

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