The Presidential election has become an increasingly tight race in recent weeks, and both sides plan to pour gargantuan resources into the final stretch: millions of dollars in swing-state advertising, thousands of volunteers dispatched to get out the vote, and the candidates themselves stumping at every opportunity.
In a bid to ferret out undecided voters and sway them to the polls, the Democratic and Republican campaigns have erected enormous—and highly secretive—data mining systems. According to Mother Jones, a team of “almost 100 data scientists, developers, engineers, analysts and old-school hackers” at the Obama campaign’s Chicago headquarters are working diligently to leverage mountains of data—much of it gathered from Facebook and other online sources—into actionable insight and votes.
A Chicago-based hacker and technologist named Harper Reed (once the CTO of t-shirt company Threadless) is apparently helping spearhead Obama’s data efforts. Obama data-mining projects include Project Narwhal, which Slate described as an attempt to consolidate voter information in a way accessible to the various elements of the campaign. Obama’s campaign has frequently advertised for analysts, modeling experts, and other data-related professionals.
Obama’s campaign is also leveraging mobile technology to squeeze a few more dollars from donors. “More than 40 percent of all our donors are new, and a lot of them are coming in because of things like this,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told Politico, referring to smartphones. That’s led to heavy investments in that area.
Meanwhile, Romney’s campaign has apparently engaged in extensive data mining of its own. “The political department has instructed its field staff to be more aggressive in collecting information on people who attend Romney rallies so that targeters can build models to predict not only how a person will vote,” read a recent piece in Slate, “but their likelihood of attending campaign events or agreeing to volunteer.”
According to Slate, Romney’s campaign relies on data firm TargetPoint Consulting to build “microtargeting models” for narrow voting blocs, along with another firm named Grassroots Targeting. But it hasn’t tried to replicate Obama’s in-house analytics team.
That fits with previous reports: over the summer, Romney digital director Zac Moffatt told political Website Politico that the Romney campaign would “outsource” its data analytics rather than develop the necessary infrastructure in-house. According to the Associated Press, Mitt Romney’s campaign has contracted consumer-analytics firm Buxton Co. to drill deep into consumer data, with the aim of digging up “wealthy and previously untapped” donors.
Contacted in the wake of that AP article, a spokesperson for Buxton emailed SlashBI: “We’re not interviewing for any more stories with a political stance,” adding, “Since our core business isn’t politics at all, the owner of our company is just shying away from articles dealing with that subject matter (for now).”
The AP article described the Romney data-crunching project as relying on “thousands of commercially available, expensive databases.” When merged with specialized data analysis, that data has resulted in the Romney campaign securing generous donations in even heavily Democratic neighborhoods. The newswire claimed an “early test” of two million households in San Francisco and other areas of the West Coast resulted in a list of “thousands of people who would be comfortably able and inclined to give Romney at least $2,500 or more.”
The big question is whether those massive data projects are truly capable of tipping the scales in favor of victory for either side. Both the Romney and Obama campaigns declined SlashBI’s multiple requests for comment about their data analytics efforts.
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