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Big Data Equals Big Money In Presidential Campaigns

Analytics identify untapped pools of donations, not answers to nagging questions of national policy.

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U.S. political parties might have been among the first--and most aggressive--users of spot surveys, exit polls, and daily measures of the changing opinions of American voters. However, they still are in the rudimentary stages of learning how to find uniquely valuable information from big-data sources or use that information to their advantage, according to specialists in numbers-driven campaign tactics, marketing, and information management.

Long before the term "big data" came into vogue, political campaigns had adopted so many of the techniques marketers use to research and target consumers, the databases they assembled easily could qualify under the three-criterion requirement for big data: volume, velocity, and variety. Not that they called it that, or that they ever dipped too far into the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created globally every day, according to an estimate from IBM.

They have long had access to many of the critical data bits, however, turning "voting histories, housing values, recreational preferences, automobile ownership and television and Internet viewing habits of individuals. The explosion of consumer data derived primarily from credit card usage and Nielsen ratings," added to other available data, became "a powerful weapon in the hands of politicos," according to Columbia journalism professor and electoral politics expert Thomas B. Edsall.

[ Read FTC Calls For Data Privacy Laws. ]

That weapon is primarily used for nanotargeting, a technique that allows marketers to slice a large population of consumers into dozens or hundreds of segments simply by filtering them through five, 10, or almost any greater number of characteristics rather than only two or three.

For more than a decade, targeted surveys; purchases of demographic and behavioral information from data brokers; and gathering names through Twitter, Facebook or other online sites where voters might state their opinions, has made the digital slicing and dicing more precise.

In 2004, according to the New York Times, the Bush campaign aimed anti-gay-marriage mailings at socially conservative Democratic black voters in an effort to persuade them to vote for Bush rather than Democratic nominee John Kerry.

The filtering and analysis needed to slice off that chunk of voters was advanced for 2004; it might not even qualify as nanotargeting today. Real big-data nanotargeting might sift the electorate in order to find women aged 35 to 45 who are Christian, voted Republican in the last presidential election, live in southern states that voted Republican by only a small margin, list themselves as Independent and as being concerned with social values, but have never contributed to a presidential election campaign. The result could become a mailing list or it could become the base data set for yet another round of analysis designed to separate voters who feel strongly about gay marriage from those who feel strongly about abortion or heterosexual divorce.

It's hard to tell from the outside the exact effect of the Bush anti-gay-marriage campaign, but the percentage of black voters going for Bush in Ohio rose from 9% in 2000 to 16% in 2004, according to the Times.

The details of what campaigns are doing with either data or analytics are fuzzy because campaigns don't brag about their successful techniques until after the election and campaign rules don't generally require campaigns to disclose details of their voter analyses, according to Scott Keeter, director of survey research of the Pew Research Center.

"It's pretty clear it [use of big-data analytics] is much more extensive now than in the past simply because there is a lot more data available about potential voters, which has been integrated into commercially available databases," Keeter said.

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