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Mining data can help transform political campaigns

Richard Jones Archive

The many uses for big data in the private sector have been well documented. By collecting information on consumers and their spending habits, retailers and marketers can improve the analytical processes they use to target potential customers.

What's less publicized, though, is the effect that data can have on the public sector - in particular, it can be profoundly influential in political campaigns, as strategists have found ways to use big data analytics to help them win elections. By gathering information about swing voters - where they live, what demographic groups they belong to and what factors influence their voting choices - political parties can find ways to extract the most from every campaign dollar, targeting the voters who matter most.

According to Corporation Service Company (CSC), using big data was a major reason why Barack Obama won the presidency both in 2008 and again in 2012. Obama's campaign researchers were able to use data analytics to research voters in swing states and predict their votes based on their past histories.

Gary Jackson, CSC's director of business analytics, told CSC that Obama's campaign organizers were savvy in their ability to examine people's lives and determine their voting futures based on limited information.

"The Obama big data team sought out those who were already advocates and did matchmaking using what CSC calls 'affinity ratios' - linking people with the same lifestyle and life-stage details with people in their social circles to drive action," Jackson said. "We believe that customer behavior changes only when influenced by other human beings - social circles - or by being compared to people like them."

Social is next
It can be difficult for political campaigns to gather enough information on voters to reach any concrete conclusions. The demographic information they have access to can only go so far, and to make further determinations about the voting public, campaigns might need to look to social media for more information.

Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist and president of the digital agency Engage, recently told The New York Times that this is clearly the next step.

"The social angle is clearly where this is going," Ruffini said. "There's only so much you can do with 'So-and-so drives a Volvo.' "

There's always the concern when using social media for information mining that data quality will take a hit. Political strategists must be careful to proceed only with verified, accurate information in their campaign decision-making. Any slippage in this regard might be a political gaffe waiting to happen.