Mitt Romney could be considered the father of big political data. He was not the one pouring over spreadsheets and devising algorithms during his pathbreaking 2001 campaign but, as Rasmus Kleis Neilsen notes in his new book Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, “the breakthrough at the national level came in 2001 and 2002 when the Republican consultant Alex Gage… introduced what he called ‘supersegmentation’ in Mitt Romney’s lavishly funded campaign for governor of Massachusetts.”
Romney was able to bring data into politics because he was intimate with its uses in business. As Louis Menand wrote in arecent article in The New Yorker, at Boston Consulting Group and Bain & Company, “data crunching seems to have been the main engine of analysis. Virtually everyone agrees that Romney was extremely good at this, and he operates his campaigns in the same way.”
Six years later, when he decided to run for President, Romney was still a data heavyweight. A campaign spokesperson told an Iowa newspaper in 2007 that Romney was “interested in data, and what data mean.” Notes Menand, “it’s not just that Romney doesn’t have good political instincts…. In management consulting, gut feelings are what you work hard to take out of the equation. That’s the justification for all that painstaking analysis.”
Yet neither Romney nor the Republicans won the data wars in 2008. That honor went, for the first time, to the Democrats, historic laggards in big data infrastructure and application due to their new new online database and user interface system, VoteBuilder/VAN. Writes Nielsen, “that year, many of my interviewees argue, the Democratic party for the first time went one better than the Republican party in the targeting and data arms race.”
Which brings us to 2012. We are in store for an interesting race, since two data heavyweights will be facing off. Despite our curiosity, we will know little of how each campaign’s data-crunching methods until long after the election, as these techniques are the political equivalent of trade secrets.
At least to the outside world, the Republicans are playing up – and even over-playing – their underdog status. In an article last week in Politico Drew Ryun, president of a conservative grassroots organizing group American Majority Action, told reporter Kenneth Vogel that “the left has been using this kind of [targeting] technology to beat us for years,” even though up until 2008 most insider’s believed that the Republicans had the advantage.
In any case, it is now Republicans that are following the Democratic lead. While the Republicans were the first to come out with a functional shared online voter database in 1995 (a feat the Democrats did not achieve until 2006), the Obama campaign is now the model to beat. The tea party group has created a mobile phone app “which is similar in some ways to technology being used by the Obama campaign and other Democrats.” The app “allows campaign volunteers while out door-knocking to access reams of data about voters, and to update voter profiles and accept campaign contributions ï¿½ all from their smartphones.” Says Ryun, “This is a tool that levels the playing field between David and Goliath.”
But smartphones apps are merely a sideshow. A more important Democratic innovation was outsourcing voter file assembly and maintenance to companies like Catalist, NPG, and Voter Activation Network. “The RNC,” reports Politico, “is nearing completion of a plan to hand over partial control of its valuable voter file to a newly formed private entity called Data Trust.” The party list will be crucial to the eventual nominee. “While GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney has been spending heavily on political technology for years, his list alone can’t compete with Obama’s,” writes Vogel.
And money from the Koch brothers, big tea party funders, may be doing more harm than good. While Data Trust is struggling to raise money, the Koch brothers put $2.5 million into a competing system, Themis. Building competing databases – rather than a single authoritative one – is likely to disadvantage Republicans since the eventual nominee may need to use both, increasing costs and decreasing efficiency. The cost is real. Federal Election Commission records show that Democratic data companies have been paid about $36 million by liberal candidates and causes since 2001 and the costs for Republicans are likely to be similar. As in elections, the tea party and its donors continue to provide both resources and division to the Republican party.
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