As this extraordinary election season winds down in the United States, polls indicate tight races — not just in the presidential contest but at every level. Get-out-the-vote efforts are taking on new levels of urgency as candidates scrap for every vote. And big data is driving it all to an unprecedented degree.
The increasingly prominent role of big data in national, state and even local elections represents a sea change in politics, but the political media, which focuses mostly on horse-race coverage driven by traditional polling, has yet to fully catch up to that new reality. Just as data has become the new currency in business, information on individual voters is now the currency of politics.
Big data analytics has proved far more accurate in forecasting races than polls. Rather than surveying a statistically valid sample of voters and extrapolating from that to predict the outcome as pollsters do, data analysts create forecasts using the vast amount of information campaigns collect on individual voters.
According to an MIT Technology Review article, the DNC used information collected during President Obama’s 2008 campaign to predict the outcome of a 2009 special election to within 150 votes. The organization also correctly forecast Republicans’ historical congressional victories in 2010, making election predictions that missed the mark by an average of only 2.5 percent.
President Obama’s savvy use of big data and analytics are widely credited as an electoral advantage in the 2008 and 2012 races. After the 2012 race, a Washington Post article noted that operatives from both camps said the president’s “digital operation [was] far more elaborate than the one mounted by Obama’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney, who collected less data and deployed it less effectively.”
By the 2014 mid-term elections, the guardian reported, the RNC had turned the tables, applying the same kind of sophisticated data analysis and data-driven electioneering mechanics typically associated with Democratic opponents. This use of big data to target advertising and get out the vote contributed to a success story that year that saw the GOP become America’s dominant party for the time, with victories in eight of nine Senate races, control of the upper chamber regained, control of the House of Representatives expanded and triumphs in a majority of gubernatorial and statehouse contests throughout the United States.
Experts say that in the current race, the Democrats’ digital edge has all but dissipated as Republicans have invested in big data and analytics. In a Datanami article published in May 2016, Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, which provides big data analytics and related services to Democrats, said, “the playing field is a lot more level now,” a sentiment echoed by David Seawright of Deep Root Analytics, which provides data analytics services to Republicans.
Republicans, Democrats, Greens, and Libertarians up and down the ticket are using social media this year to connect with voters. Not only do platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram give candidates of all parties a way to reach out and build support, they can yield valuable data that party organizations can use to get out the vote, build donor lists and identify potential volunteers.
Both Republicans and Democrats are using more sophisticated big data analytics in the present contest, gathering information and targeting voters with pinpoint precision. Like businesses that are looking for new ways to compel consumers to buy products, the parties are gathering information from multiple sources, consolidating it and analyzing the data to find ways to drive voters to the polls.
The parallels between business and politics don’t end there: It’s imperative for political parties to have the tools they need to efficiently and effectively integrate and manage the massive influx of data from multiple sources, including public records, email outreach, donations, surveys and social media. As this seemingly interminable election draws to a close, we still don’t know for certain who will be president or which party will control the U.S. Congress, but we already have a winner: big data.