Tuesday, July 30, 2013

An Election Driven by Data

I have written numerous times on this blog about the powerful impact that technology has had on the investing world.

The active use of "data mining" has extended to virtually every type of activity, and the sophistication of practitioners is growing expotentially.

I was struck by a couple of articles that appeared in the Washington Post recently discussing the differences in approach that the two candidates took in their use of data in the last presidential election.

President Obama made incredibly effective use of social media in his run for the White House in 2008.  While the traditional Democratic party bosses focused on the techniques that had worked in the past, the Obama team was able to communicate and execute its campaign in ways that had never been seen, with obvious success.

However, according to the yesterday's Washington Post article, the 2012 Obama campaign took a quantum lead in its use of technology, far surpassing what it had done in 2008.

Here's an excerpt:

The Obama campaign had the usual contingent of pollsters and ad makers and opposition researchers and, like all campaigns today, a digital director. But it also had a chief technology officer (who had never done politics before), a chief innovation officer and a director of analytics, which would become one of the most important additions and a likely fixture in campaigns of the future. 

The team hired software engineers and data experts and number-crunchers and digital designers and video producers by the score. They filled the back of a vast room resembling a brokerage house trading floor or tech start-up that occupied the sixth floor of One Prudential Plaza overlooking Millennium Park in Chicago.

No campaign had ever invested so heavily in technology and analytics, and no campaign had ever had such stated ambitions. “Technology was another big lesson learned from 2008, leap of faith and labor of love and angst-ridden entity and all the other things that you can imagine, because we were building things in-house mostly with people that had not done campaign work before,” {Deputy campaign manager Jen O'Malley} Dillon later told me. “The deadlines and breaking and testing — is it going to work, what do we do? . . . At the end of the day, it was certainly worth it, because you can’t customize our stuff, and so we just couldn’t buy off the shelf for anything and you know that, and fortunately we had enough time to kind of build the stuff. I don’t know who else will ever have the luxury of doing that again.”

The rest of the article goes on to describe how the Obama campaign used its incredible investments in technology to develop a detailed campaign strategy, right down to telling its campaign volunteers which calls to make, and who would benefit from a visit to a voter's house.

Meanwhile, while the Romney campaign was not unaware of technology, it would seem that many of their decisions were based on well-honed instincts and experience.

The Post's reporter Dan Balz has written a book about the Romney run, and an excerpt was published in Sunday's paper.  

The excerpt describes the emotional swings that Romney and his family experienced during his campaign.  Initially he was reluctant to run after losing in 2008, but his family eventually convinced him that he was the best man for the job.  

At the end, on Election Day, Romney believed he had won.  However, unlike the hyper data-driven Obama campaign, much of his belief was based on the crowds he attracted, and the enthusiastic reception he was receiving:

Romney believed the debates produced a fundamental change in his relationship with the party’s rank and file. “What had begun as people watching me with an interested eye had become instead more of a movement with energy and passion,” he said. “The rallies we’d had with larger and larger numbers and people not just agreeing with me on issues, but passionate about the election and about our campaign — that was something that had become palpable.”

As a result, he woke up on Election Day thinking he would win. “I can’t say 90 percent confident or something like that, but I felt we were going to win. . . . The campaign had changed from being clinical to being emotional. And that was very promising.”

His last hours on the trail, especially the arrival at the Pittsburgh airport on the afternoon of the election, where he was greeted by a spontaneous crowd of supporters, gave him added confidence. “We were looking at our own poll numbers and there were two things that we believed,” he said. “We believed that some of the polls that showed me not winning were just simply wrong, because they showed there was going to be more turnout from African American voters, for instance, than had existed in 2008. We said no way, absolutely no way. That can’t be, because this was the first time an African American president had run. Two thousand eight — that had to be the high point. . . . We saw independent voters in Ohio breaking for me by double digits. And as a number said, you can’t lose Ohio if you win independent voters. You’re winning Republicans solidly, you’re winning independents, and enthusiasm is overwhelmingly on your side. . . . So those things said, okay, we have a real good chance of winning. Nothing’s certain. Don’t measure the drapes. But I had written an acceptance speech and spent some time on the acceptance speech. I had not written a concession speech.”


 Whether technology decided the last election or not, it seems clear that future national campaigns will no doubt look at the 2012 elections as confirmation of the importance of using big data to develop winning campaigns.