Obama’s Big Data Election Victory

Nov. 08, 2012 | by Sam Zindel

Barack Obama

Photo: Charles Dharapak

Tim Berners Lee once said – “It’s difficult to imagine the power that you’re going to have when so many different sorts of data are available”

Well there aren’t many people that are more powerful than the President of the United States of America…and as the ticker tape settles on Obama’s re-election party, it’s time to reflect on one of the most sophisticated, data-driven campaigns in political history. Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina set out his approach from day one stating “we are going to measure every single thing in this campaign.” Together with chief data scientist Rayid Ghani and an analytics team five times the size of the 2008 campaign, they delivered on their promise and secured a second term for the President.

Creating a single source of truth

The first task of Obama’s analytics team was to create a ‘single source of truth’ database that combined their disparate data sources of potential donors, volunteers and voters. They had identified inconsistencies, duplications and complete disconnection between the many databases used by their party’s campaign communications teams. By combining email, postal, telephone, mobile and social contacts with historical voting records, polling and fundraising data, they built a single view of individuals that informed their strategies for raising funds, mobilising volunteers and securing votes.

Profiling and predicting

Demographics and data collected by fieldwork on the campaign trail were added to the mix, allowing predictive modelling to score people on their likelihood to donate or vote for the Democrats. The format of contact lists was changed from ABC to 123 as alphabetised ordering was replaced by propensity scores. Channels of communication were optimised, and the type of messaging was tailored to maximise the likelihood of response. Would person ‘X’ be more likely to read an email from Vice President Joe Biden or the First Lady? This created huge efficiencies in voter contact strategies, with an improved response rate for less cost in both time and money. This insight was then made available to the campaign teams via a bespoke tool kit called Dashboard which they interacted with whilst contacting voters door-to-door or via telephone, email and social channels.

Turning data into the human touch

Barack Obama

Photo source: knoxnews.com

Having served as a community organiser in the poorer areas of Chicago, Barack Obama knows the power of localised networks and neighbourhoods. Using centralised data to provide geo-targeted insight, campaign volunteers could base themselves in the areas that mattered most, talking to the voters they had got to know since the start of the 2008 campaign. Putting the voter at the centre of everything they did, the Democrats were able to deliver their message from within communities. The impact of this saw them receive double the votes they achieved in 2008 in the marginal states.

Focus on the swing states

The data-driven approach focussed on the swing states that would decide the outcome of the election. Regular polling of states like Ohio throughout the campaign provided valuable data for the team to process and analyse trends. For example, the analysts could track the impact of the three TV debates on the democratic vote in real-time and were able to identify specific segments to target with campaign material – split by region, demographics and the profile scoring that had been modelled in the new database. One Democrat official commented that they scenario tested the election 66,000 times every night in order to calculate predicted outcomes for swing states. Campaign resource was then allocated appropriately to persuade undecided voters most likely to pledge their allegiance to Obama.

By the time election day came around, the Democrats had a clear idea of how voting in the swing states was looking. They were comfortable and relaxed, as they could see the numbers looked good, allowing Barack Obama to head off for a basketball game whilst Mitt Romney took the unprecedented step of continuing to campaign.

A word about Nate

Data science involvement in the election wasn’t just restricted to the candidates’ teams. The much publicised Nate Silver [538 blog] used sabermetrics (remember Moneyball?) to accurately predict the outcome of all 50 state votes

US election prediction

Graphic: Michael Cosentino

So this all sounds great, that a team in America can produce a data strategy that leads to the White House…but what does it mean to the humble CMO?

Well… all of the principles can be applied to underpin marketing campaigns! After all, the US election is essentially the biggest marketing campaign out there. Most companies are drowning in the data available to them and the insight appears so hidden and distant that it’s hard to know where to start. The best organisations have started to wrestle the alligator, grab the bull by the horns and invest in a data framework that will provide a single source of truth and put the customer and their data at the centre of everything they do. By allowing predictive analytics and insight to guide them, companies that are embracing big data analysis are already beginning to leave their competition behind.

In his victory speech Barack Obama talked about hard work driven by hope. The hard work could be made a whole lot easier by leveraging data to inform your decisions.

God Bless Big Data and God Bless America.


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