2012 Obama Campaign: Cool Data Tools, But Perhaps Inconsequential

microtarget_a_630In the wake of 2012 Presidential Campaign, the details of the Obama campaign juggernaut are coming to light as some of the team’s insiders begin to share best practices. While these insights tend to captivate those of us who are intrigued by the recent trends toward data use in campaigns for voter targeting, they still ought to be taken with a grain of salt. The ‘data guys’ on the Obama campaign team know that they are hot commodities currently, but the abundance of news stories about their innovative techniques is no coincidence. Some of campaign’s top minds have hired PR firms to raise their stock in the marketplace and are looking to leverage their success while they are still hot commodities – they are campaign professionals after all. This is all to say that, as fascinating as some of the techniques used by the Obama campaign are, we need to keep things in perspective and not assume that great technology alone is the lynchpin of a winning campaign.

One important note about the Obama campaign: while a number of innovations allowed the campaign to get more bang for its buck out of TV ad targeting, and experimentation with email headings led to higher online contribution yields, these factors alone did not deliver Obama the victory last November. Sure there is a correlation between the best digital strategy and the winning campaign – but correlation is not causation. Other factors like an improving economy and a strong base of loyal Democrats (or independents with a consistent Democratic leaning) meant that Obama had a relatively safe victory in hand (despite what Karl Rove may have argued).

The data-driven Obama campaign may have outperformed traditional ‘intuition-based’ campaigns, but it was likely not the decisive factor in 2012.

With all of those disclaimers now laid out, we can begin to dig into some of the takeaways about what the Obama digital team’s successes mean for the future.

Despite the glorified tales we hear of the Obama campaign, insiders like Obama data manager, Ethan Roeder, portray a slightly more ‘fast and loose’ story of the team’s technology, describing it being held together with “duct tape and baling wire.” Other members, like Obama Chief Scientist, Rayid Ghani, described the far from perfect nature of the Obama team’s technology.

While the campaign was able to amass large amounts of data on voters and donors, from both ‘old-school’ sources and from newer social media platforms, most of this data proved nearly impossible to integrate together. So while the campaign was quite innovative in its utilization of new technology and social media, the result was only, in the words of Ghani, a “better than random” allocation of resources.

The real innovation in upcoming election cycles will come from figuring out how to effectively integrate the data collected via social media with the campaign’s other databases so that these resources can be used effectively and in particular to connect with voters in a more personal and contextually relevant manner. The impact of broadly-aimed TV ads are short lived, but there is plenty of potential for campaigns to target voters on issues of personal salience, and use voters’ social networks (which they rely on for information) to influence behavior.

Additionally, there seems to be a wider opening for leveraging some of the techniques used by the Obama team on state and local campaigns, where voter targeting may have a greater impact. While most campaigns have hopped on the social media bandwagon, their utilization of this and other technology (especially for voters who are increasingly reachable via mobile devices) is far from optimal. Joe Rospar’s, one of the founders of the Democratic digital shop Blue State Digital recently said “The next big step will be better understanding the data we have.”

Another often heard anecdote heard from the Obama campaign is about their data-driven TV ad buys directed by Carol Davidsen. The campaign was able to reach the voters they wanted at the right times of day, even though the channels and times were not those typically seen as valuable for political ads. This enabled the Obama team to stretch their ad buys significantly further. Though this is obviously beneficial, the literature on the effectiveness of TV ads in fairly limited, so it is hard to argue that even a highly efficient TV ad buy can have a significant impact a campaign. However, increasingly targeted TV ads do indicate that we are headed toward targeting of individual television sets. Many in the industry believe that by the 2016 cycle, campaigns will be buying airtime on individual TV sets rather than simply buying ads in a certain market.

Technology is moving so quickly that today’s cutting-edge tools could be obsolete by 2016, and the best practices in voter targeting will need to be reinvented taking into account the latest tech advancements and social media trends.  Just remember – the iPad wasn’t even around when Senator Obama made campaign history in 2008, and Twitter was only getting off the ground.  But what one can take away from Obama 2012 is the general data-driven mindset. The campaign did not rely on its collective knowledge of historical campaign best practices, nor did it rely on the intuition of campaign professionals to predict how voters, volunteers, and donors would respond to specific messaging. The campaign was successful because they experimented and tracked results, the only path to true innovation.

For more on what really mattered in the 2012 campaign, see The Gamble, by John Sides and Lynn Vavreck.

Note: This post earlier appeared on Votifi (http://votifi.tumblr.com/)

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