How Obama’s Team Used Big Data to Rally Voters - MIT Technology Review
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And people have been doing that for decades! Experimenters would randomly assign voters to receive varied sequences of direct mail—four pieces on the same policy theme, each making a slightly different case for Obama—and then use ongoing survey calls to isolate the attributes of those whose opinions changed as a result.
The experiment revealed how much voter response differed by age, especially among women. Older women thought more highly of the policies when they received reminders about preventive care; younger women liked them more when they were told about contraceptive coverage and new rules that prohibited insurance companies from charging women more.
The results were surprising. Those scores suggested that they probably shared Republican attitudes; but here was one thing that could pull them to Obama.
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Traditionally, campaigns have restricted their persuasion efforts to channels like mass media or direct mail, where they can control presentation, language, and targeting. Sending volunteers to persuade voters would mean forcing them to interact with opponents, or with voters who were undecided because they were alienated from politics on delicate issues like abortion. They began sending trained volunteers to knock on doors or make phone calls with the objective of changing minds.
That dramatic shift in the culture of electioneering was felt on the streets, but it was possible only because of advances in analytics. Likely Obama supporters would get regular reminders from their local field organizers, asking them to return their ballots, and, once they had, a message thanking them and proposing other ways to be involved in the campaign.Elections in Egypt
The local organizer would receive daily lists of the voters on his or her turf who had outstanding ballots so that the campaign could follow up with personal contact by phone or at the doorstep.
Wagner, however, was turning his attention beyond the field. Throughout the primaries, Romney had appeared to be the only Republican running a 21st-century campaign, methodically banking early votes in states like Florida and Ohio before his disorganized opponents could establish operations there.
Such techniques had offered George W. ByDemocrats had not only matched Republicans in adopting commercial marketing techniques; they had moved ahead by integrating methods developed in the social sciences.
That was the structure Obama had abandoned after winning the nomination in Instead, they fixated on trying to unlock one big, persistent mystery, which Lundry framed this way: TargetPoint also integrated content collected from newspaper websites and closed-caption transcripts of broadcast programs.
Ultimately, Lundry wanted to assess the impact that each type of public attention had on what mattered most to them: He turned to vector autoregression models, which equities traders use to isolate the influence of single variables on market movements. That informal conversation among political-class elites typically led to traditional print or broadcast press coverage one to two days later, and that, in turn, might have an impact on the horse race.
Those insights offered campaign officials a theory of information flows, but they provided no guidance in how to allocate campaign resources in order to win the Electoral College. The goal was to try to divine the calculations behind those decisions.
In early September, as part of his standard review, Lundry noticed that the week after the Democratic convention, Obama had aired 68 ads in Dothan, Alabama, a town near the Florida border.
Even though the area was known to savvy ad buyers as one of the places where a media market crosses state lines, Dothan TV stations reached only about 9, Florida voters, and around 7, of them had voted for John McCain in But they were advertising there.
Already the Obama campaign was known for its relentless e-mails beseeching supporters to give their money or time, but this one offered something that intrigued Davidsen: With Narwhal, e-mail blasts asking people to volunteer could take their past donation history into consideration, and the algorithms determining how much a supporter would be asked to contribute could be shaped by knowledge about his or her reaction to previous solicitations.
Now analysts could leverage personal data to identify the attributes of those who responded, and use that knowledge to refine subsequent appeals. Television and radio ads had to be purchased by geographic zone, and the available data on who watches which channels or shows, collected by research firms like Nielsen and Scarborough, often included little more than viewer age and gender.
How you knit that together is a challenge. But when it came to buying media, such calculations had been simply impossible, because campaigns were unable to link what they knew about voters to what cable providers knew about their customers.
Walsh says of the effort to reimagine the media-targeting process: It was to find out how many of our persuadable voters were watching those dayparts. For privacy reasons, however, the information was not available at the individual level. The Obama campaign had created its own television ratings system, a kind of Nielsen in which the only viewers who mattered were those not yet fully committed to a presidential candidate.
But Davidsen had to get the information into a practical form by early May, when Obama strategists planned to start running their anti-Romney ads. She oversaw the development of a software platform the Obama staff called the Optimizer, which broke the day into 96 quarter-hour segments and assessed which time slots across 60 channels offered the greatest number of persuadable targets per dollar.
By September, she had unlocked an even richer trove of data: Sometimes a national cable ad was a better bargain than a large number of local buys in the 66 media markets reaching battleground states. But the occasional national buy also had other benefits.
They had invested in their own media-intelligence platform, called Centraforce.
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It used some of the same aggregated data sources that were feeding into the Optimizer, and at times both seemed to send the campaigns to the same unlikely ad blocks—for example, in reruns on TV Land. The campaign had plenty of those, generated by a public-opinion team of eight outside firms, and new arrivals at the Chicago headquarters were shocked by the variegated breadth of the research that arrived on their desks daily.
The lead pollster, Joel Benenson, had respondents write about their experiences. A quartet of polling firms were assigned specific states and asked to figure out which national themes fit best with local concerns. But the campaign had to play defense, too. Simas would monitor Community conversations to see which news events penetrated voter consciousness.
There were simply more undecided voters in such states—sometimes nearly twice as many as the traditional pollsters found. A basic methodological distinction explained this discrepancy: The rivalry between the two units trying to measure public opinion grew intense: Green Bay was the only media market in the state to experience such a shift, and there was no obvious explanation.
But it was hard to discount. Whereas a standard person statewide poll might have reached respondents in the Green Bay area, analytics was placing 5, calls in Wisconsin in each five-day cycle—and benefiting from tens of thousands of other field contacts—to produce microtargeting scores.
Analytics was talking to as many people in the Green Bay media market as traditional pollsters were talking to across Wisconsin every week.
In the end, Romney took the county For the most part, however, the analytic tables demonstrated how stable the electorate was, and how predictable individual voters could be. The analytic data offered a source of calm. Those who answered that question with a seven or below on a point scale were disregarded as not inclined to vote.
As a result, the Republicans failed to account for voters that the Obama campaign could be mobilizing even if they looked to Election Day without enthusiasm or intensity. Each day, the campaign overlaid the lists of early voters released by election authorities with its modeling scores to project how many votes they could claim as their own.
Wagner sorted them by microtargeting projections and found that 58, had individual support scores over That amounted to The numbers settled almost exactly where Wagner had said they would: The Legacy A few days after the election, as Florida authorities continued to count provisional ballots, a few staff members were directed, as four years before, to remain in Chicago.
Their instructions were to produce another post-mortem report summing up the lessons of the past year and a half. The undertaking was called the Legacy Project, a grandiose title inspired by the idea that the innovations of Obama should be translated not only to the campaign of the next Democratic candidate for president but also to governance.
Obama had succeeded in convincing some citizens that a modest adjustment to their behavior would affect, however marginally, the result of an election. So when we get the words wrong, it stings. We have updated the item with the exact quote and changed our ruling accordingly. In the final debate of the presidential campaign, President Barack Obama tried to portray challenger Mitt Romney as a novice who lacks understanding of complex world issues.
Romney, I'm glad that you recognize that al-Qaida is a threat, because a few months ago when you were asked what's the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia, not al-Qaida. Without realizing he could be overheard, Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more ability to negotiate with the Russians about missile defense after the November election. Obama interjected, saying, "This is my last election.
After my election, I have more flexibility. Romney quickly joined the chorus of critics. In a March 26 interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, he said the president seemed to be willing to negotiate with Russians on matters he was hiding from the American people.
They fight for every cause for the world's worst actors. The idea that he has more flexibility in mind for Russia is very, very troubling indeed. But when these terrible actors pursue their course in the world and we go to the United Nations looking for ways to stop them It's always Russia, typically with China alongside.
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And so in terms of a geopolitical foe, a nation that's on the Security Council that has the heft of the Security Council, and is of course is a massive nuclear power, Russia is the geopolitical foe. In that piece, he never used the word "enemy" or "foe" to describe Russia. But he did depict it as an adversary and referred to its "intransigence. He granted Russia new limits on our nuclear arsenal.
He capitulated to Russia's demand that a United Nations resolution on the Iranian nuclear-weapons program exclude crippling sanctions," Romney wrote.
It has continued to arm the regime of Syria's vicious dictator and blocked multilateral efforts to stop the ongoing carnage there. Across the board, it has been a thorn in our side on questions vital to America's national security.