The 2012 election: Where Big Data meets politics

For generations, politicians have used the phrase “My friends.”  Even Abe Lincoln would often refer to his listeners that way.

Today, in the age of Facebook, that familiarity obviously takes on a whole new set of references.  We are in the world of friends, of friends of friends, of one-and-two-degree connections.  We are also in the midst of what the most intensely fought digital campaign in history.  The 2008 election cycle will seem quaintly primitive by comparison.  Consider that in 2008, Facebook usage was just 5% of what it is today.  Twitter was a mere zygote, Pinterest didn’t’ even exist, and Big Data was pre-buzz word status.

There is no question that Obama out-digitized McCain in the last cycle – he out-raised him 3-to-1, and his messaging, targeting, online phone banking, and get-out-the-vote efforts were dazzling in comparison to McCain’s dial-up era lameness.  That digital steamroller made Obama not just the hopeful option, but the sophisticated choice; a candidate whose modernity made him most likely to succeed at the complex economic challenges we faced.

This time around, the digital divide between the candidates will not be as dramatic, although the president has some advantages, including the value of time.  Consider that ObamaForAmerica.com has been up and running since 2008, while the Romney team has had to construct a digital team from scratch.  (We’ll soon see how his executive chops manifest themselves in building an innovative and flexible digital organization.)

To put that in perspective, on the morning of Election Day the website MyBarackObama.com – the social offshoot of Obama for America, had collected an impressive 13 million addresses and just about four million individual donations.  All of those supporters have been emailed regularly with fund-raising blandishments; some have said they’ve done this to the point of backfire.  And while the president’s poll numbers have waxed and waned, his Facebook page has exploded nearly six fold since he was elected.

The media has been all over the electoral implications of the president’s digi-muscle. Politico has written about “Obama’s Data Advantage”; The Guardian has celebrated “Obama’s Digital Wizards”; and CNN postulates that “Obama’s data-crunching prowess may get him re-elected,” rolling out buzzwords like “data harmonization.”

What we’re witnessing in 2012 is the convergence of the Big Data phenomenon and politics.  McKinsey has called big data the “next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity” for some very good reasons. The ability to process and mine terabytes of data, and use that to discern patterns, linkages and preferences is where the major candidates will truly demonstrate their digital props.

That’s much more of a skill than merely targeting voters by obvious attributes such as age, gender, geography and website preferences.  Segmenting voters with simple questions — for example, if you regularly visit job sites (you care about employment), Web MD (you’re likely 50+) or sites that aggregate farmer’s markets (you care about environmental issues) — is kid’s stuff.  What you need to recognize is that there are 15 terabytes of data added to Facebook every day; 10 terabytes can hold the entire Library of Congress. To scan that and turn it into actionable intelligence is a profoundly complex undertaking that requires a new, hybrid partnership between political strategists and computer scientists; the smoked-filled room meets the Red-Bull-fueled room.

That’s not just a matter of analyzing your friends on Facebook and the people you follow on Twitter.  Your friends may or may not reflect your political views and interests. Complex algorithms will need to be written to track and analyze how often you communicate with some friends versus others, to understand the nuances of your social graph, and to assess the books, movies and music you enjoy.  Those need to be viewed in the context of your network and in a macro-framework as well, to understand what you care about and how to motivate you.

Plus, influencers need to be identified, and it goes far deeper than a simple one-dimensional Klout score; someone with a low overall score might be incredibly influential in the world of Ohio parents of autistic children.  All this needs to be assembled, parsed, mapped against poll data on a real-time basis, and turned into targeted online marketing.

Will this level of nano-understanding and precision targeting make the difference, as prognosticators are opining?  I don’ think it’s that simple.  The risk to both of the candidates is that digital sophistication doesn’t automatically translate into convincing marketing. Online marketing can be exquisitely relevant, but it’s not really able to create big, bold powerful leadership brand and imprints.

As many researchers have pointed out, most notably Drew Westen in “The Political Brain,” presidential campaigns turn on impressionistic perceptions of candidates that are created and fired up by deep neural associations.  The web can activate those imprints, but it cannot create them.

As a result, success will come from the artful synthesis of TV and traditional media — which paints the pictur — and digital, which fills in the dots.  This elevates the complexity of managing a presidential campaign to new and challenging heights. The voter intelligence systems and targeting capability of digital marketing on the presidential level require skills that no campaign has had to manage before. And it’s not just a technological challenge for an organization that is new and untested. It’s operational.  Facebook posts, Tweets, emails and SMS messages will be ground out, relentlessly, to thousands of groups, sub-groups, and atomic-sized clusters.

That campaign architecture, with tens of thousands of individual messages, means that it’s dangerously likely that something leaks out which is pathetically pandering or embarrassingly opportunistic. We’ve seen sophisticated consumer marketing companies make huge mistakes because digital marketing can drive responsibility deep in into an organization where bad judgments find a home.

In the rush to scale a massive digital organization, and in the competitive frenzy of a presidential campaign, the promise of digital can create a wave of beautifully targeted catastrophes.

Adam Hanft is a well-known brand strategist whose clients include leading digital brands and major consumer package goods companies. Adam blogs frequently for Huffington Post, Fast Company and other media on marketing, politics and the consumer culture.

Photo via Nick Knupffer/Intel

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