“Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed.” – Darth Vader
The Obama campaign’s data-driven approach to ground campaigning has been hailed as a miracle of 21st century electioneering. The campaign, it is said, uses cutting edge “microtargeting” technology to prospect, classify, woo, and ultimately turn out supporters to vote Obama.
The subject of many fawning press accounts, the Obama database makes educated guesses about the political sensibilities of voters based on their ages, registration affiliations, and their declared allegiances to campaign workers – along with a host of other factors. The entire operation aspires to classify voters on two different spectrums – how strongly they support the president and how likely they are to actually vote. A strong Obama supporter with a sporadic voting record might get a visit from a canvasser to get registered and request a mail-in ballot. A voter the database believes is wavering might get a persuasion call from a volunteer making the case for the president.
The glowing accounts in the newspapers conjure up visions of hip young geeks parked in front of gleaming banks of computers, winning elections with the click of a mouse. Still, amidst these hymns and hosannas, I wonder if the implementation of the data-driven technique is as brilliant as advertised. My field level experience suggests that rather than having bins of voters sorted neatly by candidate preference and voting habits, the campaign has agglomerations of voters that share similar characteristics but are by no means homogeneous.
The sophisticated techniques the press describes (like using data to tailor phone pitches to voters) are things the campaign aspires to but fails to execute properly, at least in my field level view. The irony is that the “old-fashioned” way of doing things – before powerful databases – could possibly be more effective than all that tedious mucking about with low quality data.
An example: In the Beaverdale neighborhood I frequent, we have contacted those the database fingers as allies so many times, some are stale contacts. It is sometimes more fruitful to go to work on Joes and Janes off the street than ask our supporters one more time if they want to volunteer or if they want to vote early.
It is impossible (at least for me) to say which method is empirically more effective: A spirited yet flawed attempt at a targeted, data-driven approach or using more old-fashioned techniques. I can only say that the drawbacks of driving a small universe of voters insane by calling them every day are very obvious at the field level. But even that oversaturation could be just a particularly flagrant byproduct of a successful nanotargeting campaign.
Football coach Woody Hayes used to say, “Only three things can happen when you pass and two of them are bad.” And it’s true, a coach watching the introduction of the forward pass in 1906 might see an interception and conclude, wrongly, that throwing the football is a terrible way to run an offense – too many risks with that precious ball! That coach’s error would be to spot an obvious drawback but miss the advantages that a well-developed passing game offers.
The database aspires to a level of sophistication that is unattainable when its primary users are volunteers who have had perhaps ten minutes of instruction from a harried junior staff person. The data game remains a work in progress for the Obama campaign, but a potent one.
-A cross post from Six Weeks, Six Votes