How ‘Big Data’ Helped Obama Get Elected
President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign made sophisticated use of personal information databases and his administration is now applying the same technique to policy implementation, according to a Quinnipiac professor who spoke Wednesday at the Old State House.
Journalism Professor Richard Hanley joined Wayne Winsley, who lost to U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and Kenny Curran, U.S. Sen.-elect Chris Murphy’s campaign manager, for a panel discussion on the nature of campaigns in an era when traditional media has become less relevant.
Hanley gave a short presentation on the Obama campaign’s use of “big data” to personalize its outreach to potential donors and voters. Hanley described big data as private personal information and internet histories that gets stored in databases.
For years that data has been used almost exclusively by marketing companies, he said. In 2008, Obama’s first presidential campaign dabbled in using data to personalize its message in a way Hanley said was, in hindsight, somewhat “primitive.”
But that changed this year as Obama’s campaign staff ramped up an advanced fundraising and outreach machine armed with knowledge of the personal preferences of its would-be voters.
“The Obama campaign more than the Romney campaign really unleashed the power of databases in ways that perhaps moved the needle of the election,” Hanley said.
That’s because more than ever before, the campaign knew who it was reaching out to. Hanley showed a picture of a room full of servers owned by the Facebook social media site. The servers contain a host of information about the preferences of Facebook users: things they’ve posted, items they’ve liked, books they said they’ve read.
But Facebook isn’t the only source of personal data available for mining. Whenever someone visits a website, a record, or cookie, is left on their device. That record knows where the user has gone on the Internet.
“That’s part of your personality profile. You’re preferences are expressed in what you read online, apps can be created to then reach those preferences,” he said.
And if they know the preferences of voters, campaigns can create ads that speak to those preferences.
“You can have a whole inventory of thousands of ads to reach thousands of different perspectives people may hold and a political ad tailored to that perspective can be shown on the screen. Customized content,” Hanley said.
Even if you haven’t overtly expressed your preferences on the Internet, servers know which websites you have visited and how much time you’ve spent there, he said. Data collected from smart phones even let databases know where someone is, where they’ve been, and potentially where they’re going, if that user consulted a map before going, he said.
Preference data informed the content of what the Obama campaign presented and who they presented it to. But it also informed campaign decisions, Hanley said. For instance, databases told the campaign that, of potential celebrity surrogates, actress Sarah Jessica Parker had the most pull for East Coast middle-aged female voters, he said.
“So the Obama campaign came up with this: Dinner with Barack at Sarah Jessica Parker’s New York house and that whole campaign was based on analysis,” Hanley said.
Now that Obama has secured another four years in office, Hanley said his administration is employing tricks it refined on the campaign trail to policy implementation. On Nov. 26, the administration created the Twitter hashtag “#My2K,” based on how much middle class families will see their taxes raised if Congress fails to reach an agreement on extending the Bush-era tax cuts. Obama used his Twitter account to encourage followers to reach out to their representatives.
“Now he said, ‘This worked during the campaign. Now I’m going to use this data, this technique to use it for policy and this changes the game,” Hanley said.
Though not every American uses Twitter, Hanley said the message is still effectively dispersed because the media covers what the president tweets.
While the tactic was highly effective for the president on the campaign trail, he said the changing nature of campaigns have made traditional media “structurally obsolete.” With the ability to directly reach out to voters, candidates no longer need reporters and free media to get their message out, he said.
As a result, Hanley said modern candidates are increasingly turning into abstractions.
“They’re no longer real people. They don’t talk to the media, and I’m of course biased in that, because they’re reaching people through other means. So the journalists are covering the other means, which is a step removed from the candidates,” he said.
Connecticut reporters got a taste of the new normal with the U.S. Senate race between Murphy and Republican Linda McMahon.
Reporters found it difficult, if not impossible, in many instances to speak directly with the candidates.
Curran, Murphy’s campaign manager, said his candidate was more accessible than McMahon. Murphy’s campaign also had less money to purchase paid media.
Hanley joked in his presentation about McMahon’s tactic of purchasing excessive ad buys both in Connecticut and New York, where she bought ad time to reach voters in Fairfield County.
“The Linda McMahon lesson was a ‘No Television Station Left Behind’ campaign,” he said, adding that many of his former students work at local stations. “They still have their jobs thanks to Linda and thanks for that.”
Tags: Barack Obama, big data, data mining, campaigning, ads, dh
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