The First Use of Data in a Political Campaign

In 2008, Barack Obama’s Presidential Campaign innovated in a way that would become the norm for all subsequent elections in the United States. In what would become known as the ‘Facebook Election’, Obama’s team used digital media in a way that was never seen before. By reaching out to users via SMS, YouTube, Facebook and other social networks, Obama’s team managed to create immediacy and excitement that was never seen before in a political campaign.

This wasn’t only a success for the would-be 44th President, but also for his campaign team’s bottom line. Take, for example, the campaign’s use of YouTube. According to Joe Trippi, a political consultant, the 2008 Obama campaign managed to save almost $50m (€44.1m) by using YouTube to broadcast content instead of paying TV stations.

Nevertheless, what happened in 2008 was prehistoric compared to the 2012 political campaign, according to Obama’s Chief Strategist, David Axelrod. In 2012, Obama’s team utilised five predictive models for individual voters. These models indicated the probability of voters, on an issue-by-issue basis, being persuaded to cast their vote in Obama’s favour, predicting overall support as well as the likelihood of donating, volunteering and voting. Data to inform these models was mined from various sources, including the Obama for America app which, with over one million downloads, became one of the primary vehicles in the drive for data.

Crucially, these models worked. Two-thirds of the $541 million (€478m) that Obama raised in donations came in amounts that were lower than $200 (€176). When compared with his challenger, Mitt Romney, the contrast is stark: only 26% of Romney’s $300m (€265m) was in the form of small donations. These models also allowed for more efficient work from volunteers on the ground: by discovering which issues affected support from individual voters their likelihood to vote, volunteers only spent time in streets populated by those citizens whose minds were open to change.

Is this really a positive change? A bright light on the horizon for campaign accountants and a boon for prospective candidates? Successes based on data are not without ethical considerations, at least in the view of Jeff Chester, from the digital advertising watchdog, Center for Digital Democracy. According to Chester, Obama’s 2012 ignore ethical and moral implications in “its rush to exploit the power of digital data to win re-election.” This view was echoed by the late Senator John McCain, who compared Obama’s use of data to that of Cambridge Analytica. However, McCain’s comparison misses some of the nuance of this situation, while Obama’s aforementioned app could have gathered the data of user’s friends in a similar way to Cambridge Analytica, it did not. This decision makes a big difference with regards to ethics and privacy. In reality, the evaluation of the ethics of the Obama campaign depends on personal beliefs. Some, such as author Bruce Bimber, claim that Obama’s use of data foreshadowed the scandals of recent years whereas those who support Obama point to the fact that no laws were broken and data wasn’t stored in the same way as Cambridge Analytica did.

Whatever the evaluation, one thing is clear: in 5 years, and two campaigns, Barack Obama and his team permanently changed the way political campaigning works.

Sources:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/feb/17/obama-digital-data-machine-facebook-election

https://medium.com/datadriveninvestor/the-ethics-of-political-micro-targeting-c3b0be245607

https://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/11/07/how-obamas-internet-campaign-changed-politics/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/obama-the-big-data-president/2013/06/14/1d71fe2e-d391-11e2-b05f-3ea3f0e7bb5a_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ee8adb3e2f80

https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/democrats-push-to-redeploy-obamas-voter-database/2012/11/20/d14793a4-2e83-11e2-89d4-040c9330702a_story.html?utm_term=.eef61313b141

https://www-tandfonline-com.proxy.uba.uva.nl:2443/doi/full/10.1080/19331681.2014.895691?scroll=top&needAccess=true