Did big data analytics help Obama get re-elected?
By Edwin Yapp November 8, 2012
- Big data, predictive analysis used extensively in Obama's re-election campaign
- Slick use of these tools may have proven to be the decisive factor in winning fence voters in swing states
Periscope by Edwin Yapp
BARACK Obama retained his mandate and will remain the president of the United States of America for four more years after defeating his Republican challenger, former governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney
The race for the presidency couldn’t have been more tightly contested as the one we just witnessed. According to early reports on CNN, the incumbent Obama was trailing his challenger Romney initially. That changed quickly when results of some of the larger west coast states – including California, Oregon, Nevada and New Mexico – finished their count.
By 11am (Malaysian time) Nov 7, it became apparent that the first black president of the United States would re-capture the White House with more than the 270 electoral votes he needed to do so, barring any other unforeseen circumstances.
Past noon, it was pretty much confirmed that Obama would retain the US Presidency, with an overwhelming majority of 303 Electoral Votes to Romney’s 206, according to the BBC.
But while all that drama may seem exciting at the time, what captured my attention was what a BBC analyst said in her summary of what she thought had been the difference between the incumbent’s campaign and that of his challenger.
To paraphrase her, she said that Obama’s campaign meticulously applied “advanced marketing segmenting” on voters, which was aimed at targeting those who would most likely vote the president into the White House again.
She went on to say that she believed the Obama camp applied data such as consumer and demographic data to find out who would be more likely to vote the sitting president, and mobilized canvassers and volunteers to go out and get them to vote for him.
This, she said, made the difference in the Obama camp.
The notion of applying data mining to the US presidential election isn’t new. Reports four years ago pointed to the fact that Obama’s campaign was certainly geared towards using social media as a big part of his strategy to capture the hearts and minds of the more technologically and social media savvy demographic, many of whom are young people.
As early as June this year, the political website Politico in an article discussed the data advantage the President’s camp had, noting that “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.
But I believe that as the months rolled on, Obama’s camp upped the ante on his rival not the least because more is at stake than four years ago. Also true is the fact that the application of such science is now more strategic than in 2008, and the tools with which to analyze the data and the people and skill sets behind them would be more advanced too.
Contrary to what people may think, the Romney camp wasn’t in the dark insofar as using data mining was concerned.
Notwithstanding the high profile faux pas that hit his camp in May, where the launch of his iPhone App misspelled “America” as “Amercia,” Romney’s campaign had contracted consumer-analytics firm Buxton Co to drill deep into consumer data, with the aim of digging up “wealthy and previously untapped” donors, according to a a Slashdot article in August, citing The Associated Press.
“The Romney data-crunching project apparently relies on 'thousands of commercially available, expensive databases' which contain everything from charitable contributions to survey responses. Combined with specialized data analysis, that data has resulted in the Romney campaign securing generous donations in even heavily Democratic neighborhoods,” noted Slashdot.
It’s probably too early to analyze conclusively what the fundamental differences were between the two campaigns and how the use of contextual data mining and other predictive analytics tools contributed to Obama's win.
Perhaps the BBC analyst got it right when she suggested that Obama’s contingent went beyond just a mere branding exercise using social media as a primary tool or as a fund raising mechanism. This theory is not without merit as suggested by the aforementioned Politico story.
Quoting Darrell M. West, a leading scholar on technology innovation at the Brookings Institution, Politco noted, “They [the Obama team] are way ahead of Romney micro-targeting and it’s a level of precision we haven’t seen before. The Obama campaign has been able to work on it under the radar during the Republican primary season.”
The article goes one to say that the earlier protracted Republican primary season could have stymied Romney’s camp, sapping them of precious resources which could be otherwise have used to build a complex digital strategy and operation.
“It wasn’t something we were going to put resources into if he wasn’t the nominee,” said one adviser Politico quoted.
It would seem that the era of “Big Data” has permeated politics as it has in business and commerce – at least in the United States. Whether this trend would begin to take hold here in Asia remains to be seen.
That said, the lessons learnt from applying big data and predictive analysis in politics is something that the commercial and business world – both big and small – should take note of today.
Granted, some of the trends peddled by big vendors, service providers and the like may be just the hype that precedes reality, with some of these trends being still very nascent -- but in general, the use of big data analysis to eke out competitive advantage is the next battleground.,
After all, unstructured data is only going to grow and not retard. And the one who is likely to win, like Obama, must not only be prepared and be the first to apply it effectively, but to do so as tenaciously as possible.
(Pic courtesy of www.facebook.com/barackobama)