Can Data Mining Win a Presidential Campaign?

The Republicans and Democrats are betting big on data analytics in this current election cycle.

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. (Romney digital director Zac Moffatt told political Website Politico as far back as June that the Romney campaign would “outsource” its data analytics rather than develop the necessary infrastructure in-house.)

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.

The AP claims 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 Obama campaign also relies on data-mining potential voters. A June Politico article discussed how the president’s campaign managers had used Facebook “and other online sources” to assemble a database of potential voters, the better to apparently design campaign messages for very specific demographics. In contrast to the Romney campaign, Obama’s digital operations are apparently kept “totally in-house.”

In addition to hooking the digital side of their campaign to the Facebook data hose, Obama’s election managers have hired a mix of digital directors, software engineers and statistics experts. “Obama for America is looking for Quantitative Media Analysts, Analytics Engineers, Battleground States Elections Analysts and Modeling Analysts,” reads a want ad on the campaign’s Website. The goal: to create data processing pipelines, integrate new data into models, build tools, and generate reports.

Although both campaigns are rather secretive about their data-analytics operations, their respective goals seem somewhat divergent. At least based on what the AP has uncovered, Romney’s campaign is using data as a way to find cash it might otherwise have left on the table; Obama’s people, on the other hand, seem more concerned with data as a way to magnify the effects of campaign messaging, and perhaps play a stronger ground game.

Obama’s campaign also uses technology to solicit funds from donors, with heavy investments in mobile-app design. “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.

At the time, it seemed as if the Obama campaign—armed with a treasure trove of data, as well as dozens of programmers and data analysts—had a data advantage over Romney. However, this new AP report suggests that Romney’s campaign has been quietly working behind the scenes to correct that imbalance.

In an election this close, with a rapidly shrinking number of undecided voters and contested states, a razor-thin advantage created by data analytics could mean the difference between success and failure. Traditional “bumps” such as vice presidential announcements have translated into relatively little momentum for either side; neither have massive ad campaigns swayed the needle terribly much. Winning the day, for either side, could come down to the better data-cruncher.


Image: R.L. Hausdorf/