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Big Data and Politics: Influencing Both Sides of the Aisle

Seven political tactics inspired by Big Data

Data has always had a place in politics. Politicians have relied on polls, voter interests and demographics for years. In 2008, the Obama campaign was recognized for its data-driven campaign, but it wasn’t until the 2012 election, when the tools became available, that big data was used to target voters and win a presidential election using methods that had never been used before.

Much like businesses, political parties have collected a lot of data over the years, but that data has been siloed into various categories: donations, website visits, social media comments. While each of these categories are useful, the ability to combine and analyze all of this data together creates new opportunities to target each individual voter, but until recently it was much too costly to do so. Now with the creation of Hadoop and Hadoop as a Service vendors, big data is being used by both parties to influence state and national elections alike.

Using big data starts with having a data collection and analysis tool. For the democrats that is the Voter Activation Network that they used in the last few election cycles. Republicans started later in the game and are yet to come up with a solution universal to the party, but an influential group in Texas has developed RVotes as its own voter database and outreach tool. Of course, when it comes down to it, it’s not about collecting data but using it in a meaningful way, so let’s take a look at some tactics made possible by by big data.

1. The Mini Donation
One clever tactic the Obama campaign used was running TV ads asking for a mini donation of $10. While this may have appeared as grassroots fundraising or some kind of PR stunt, the goal of the ads was actually to collect cell phone data. In order to donate, viewers were asked to text GIVE to the campaign’s number. Once all of those donors’ numbers were collected, they could be sent additional campaign messages that the campaign knew could be targeted directly toward Obama supporters.

2. Smart Canvassing
Canvassing is not a particularly new or high-tech political tactic, but knowing exactly what a person’s political views or most important interests are is. There is a mobile app available that volunteers can use to access just that kind of information while canvassing, so they can be better prepared before knocking on the door. The app also allows volunteers to enter in information, such as whether the person was familiar with the candidate and whether they were likely to vote for a candidate along with any other useful information that could later be used in get-out-the-vote efforts.

3. Targeted Ads
Most of us have probably noticed the difference in political ads the last couple of elections. Rather than seeing a good mix of ads from both parties, it seemed like certain ads followed us around no matter which site we visited. That is because campaigns were using big data to target ads based on a person’s likelihood to vote for a particular candidate as well as issues pertinent for them. For example, running ads about decreasing the cost of health insurance specifically to those who are uninsured.

4. Grassroots Approach
A major shift created by big data is that communication is no longer about the number of TV ads you run, but rather how many neighborhoods and voter groups you reach. Big data has provided the resources to return to grassroots politics en masse. For example, political groups collect information on which issues are important to particular neighborhoods and then ask for votes by focusing on those issues.

5. Smart Fundraising
Fundraising is critical to the success of any campaign, so naturally campaigns are using big data to draw in more donations as well. The Maryland Republican Party, for example, used data analytics to determine how likely an individual was to donate as well as the amount they could donate based on wealth to arrive $17,000 ahead of its fundraising schedule.

6. Public Sentiment Measurement
Polls are biased and often give a poor view of which way the vote is really going to go. Online behavior, on the other hand, can give a much better idea of what people are really thinking. Campaigns have started analyzing twitter, online comments and other activities to determine which candidate that voter is more likely to support.

7. Interpreting Constituent Behavior
Finally, determining what causes a party loyalist to switch over to another party can be particularly useful for a minority party or a presidential candidate campaigning in swing states. The Obama campaign used big data to create a rating system to predict how each voter was likely to behave. The four indicators included likelihood of supporting Obama, likelihood of voting, likelihood to be influenced by reminders to vote and, in the case of non-supporters, likelihood to change their mind based on a particular issue.

With its success rate so far, big data will become increasingly influential in the political arena as tactics become even more sophisticated and targeted, but it’s long-term effects are yet to be determined. How do you see big data affecting politics in the long term?

More Stories By Gil Allouche

Gil Allouche is the Vice President of Marketing at Qubole. Most recently Sr. Director of Marketing for Karmasphere, a leading Big Data Analytics company offering SQL access to Apache Hadoop, where he managed all marketing functions, Gil brings a keen understanding of the Big Data target market and its technologies and buyers. Prior to Karmasphere, Gil was a product marketing manager and general manager for the TIBCO Silver Spotfire SaaS offering where he developed and executed go-to-market plans that increased growth by 600 percent in just 18 months. Gil also co-founded 1Yell, a social media ad network company. Gil began his marketing career as a product strategist at SAP while earning his MBA at Babson College and is a former software engineer.

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