In the 2012 presidential postmortems, Democrats claimed that an army of computer engineers, mathematicians and social scientists created a huge data advantage over Republicans that helped President Obama win re-election. There’s truth in that.
Two aspects of this data gap stand out. The first is microtargeting. This means compiling and using hundreds of pieces of information about each voter that—combined with survey research—can help campaigns predict how likely a person is to vote, how persuadable they are, what issues matter to them, and what arguments they find persuasive.
Republicans historically did this better, but they microtarget once in the late spring or early summer, hoping this snapshot will remain stable through election day. Team Obama integrated polling data into their voter file and frequently did large surveys with short questionnaires. This steady flow of attitudinal information gave them a dynamic view of the electorate’s constantly changing opinions, and allowed them to constantly update and refine their microtargeting.
The Democrats’ second big edge came from Team Obama integrating volunteers, donors and Web visitors into their voter file where they, too, were microtargeted. The social networks and address books of these individuals also were swept, with their contacts tagged on the voter file.
This enabled the Obama campaign to contact voters using volunteers who they either knew, or who shared their background and cared about the same issues. Volunteers were armed with messages personally tailored for each voter. This is far more powerful than phone calls or knocking on doors with a general script.