As Americans go to the polls today, they may well be voting in a big data election.
That’s because this is the first time that the colossal amount of voter information the campaigns have amassed from databases and social media has been combined and used so extensively to target voters.
In fact, while many voters might be unaware of it, the presidential campaigns know – and in some cases have known for weeks – the candidate many voters will be voting for on Election Day thanks to data analysis and big data analytics.
The Romney and Obama camps have taken different approaches to crunching big data to guide how they woo voters. And the recent Huffington Post headline, “Smartcampaign, It’s the Data, Stupid,” sums up the prominent role data has played in the race for the White House.
For its part, the Obama campaign is focused on an analytics tool called Dashboard, “a one-stop-shop for political organizing and voter data,” according to a recent Marketplace article.
When a canvasser knocks on a door, Dashboard arms him with a customized message based on all the big data the Obama campaign has collected.
“Did they donate to Obama last year? Do they vote in every election?” the article notes. “Did this person work at one of Ohio’s revitalized manufacturing plants? Is he a strong supporter or a lean supporter or a voter still on the fence?”
Zach Moffat, Romney’s national digital director, tells Marketplace that the heart of the Republican effort is to reach voters he describes as “off-the-gridders,” people who can’t be reached by traditional campaign methods.
Romney outsources his analytics efforts to a firm called Targeted Victory. The company’s co-founder, Michael Beach, says data allows the campaign to identify which ad is the most effective for a voter to see.
“Think of it less that we’re buying a channel, or that we’re buying an audience,” says Beach. “And so we’re not interested in where the ad runs but who it runs to, and that flips the whole mass marketing tradition on its head.”
It won’t be clear which campaign more effectively leverages big data analytics until polls close and ballots are tallied. But the Obama campaign has been very successful in identifying voters who can be persuaded, according to an article by Sasha Issenberg, the author of “The Victory Lab,” a book about the new science of political campaigns.
Issenberg argues that the Obama campaign’s newly developed persuasion model, which scores the likelihood that a voter can be pushed in Obama’s direction, is driven by research that suggests how to get a voter to change his behavior
“Experiments have shown that giving voters more information about candidates or issues or the stakes of the election does little to adjust their likelihood of casting a ballot,” according to Issenberg. “To budge a nonvoter out of complacency, campaigns have learned, they have to use psychological techniques focused on getting someone to do something he or she is not used to doing. There’s one set of tools for changing opinions, and another for modifying behavior.”
On the flip side, the Romney campaign is selecting targets based on issues they support and issues that might spark an emotional response from a voter, Issenberg notes.
“With this data, Romney’s targeters are able to model the likelihood that a voter will respond emotionally to one of its appeals – and if that person appears in the middle range between predicted support for Obama and Romney, the campaign will send a sequence of mail pieces on a related theme, like economics or social issues,” she says.
To keep tabs on analytics predictors of the race up until that last votes are tallied, check out Election Analytics, a University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign tool that tracks polling data to forecast the election results.
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