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Obama campaign's investment in data crunching paid off

No other presidential campaign has relied so heavily on the science of analytics, using information to predict voting patterns. Election day may have changed the game.

November 13, 2012|By Christi Parsons and Kathleen Hennessey, Washington Bureau
  • Daniel Wagner, 29, was chief analytics officer for President Obama's reelection campaign. His data-crunching team came up with a model that closely matched the results on election day.
Daniel Wagner, 29, was chief analytics officer for President Obama's… (John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune )

CHICAGO — Early on election day, in two tight, tucked-away rooms at Obama headquarters known as the Cave and the Alley, the campaign's data-crunching team awaited the nation's first results, from Dixville Notch, a New Hampshire hamlet that traditionally votes at midnight.

Dixville Notch split 5-5. It did not seem an auspicious outcome for the president.

But for the math geeks and data wizards who spent more than a year devising sophisticated models to predict which voters would back the president, Dixville Notch was a victory. Their model had gotten it right, predicting that about 50% of the village's voters were likely to support President Obama.

EXPLORE: Full election results

Daniel Wagner, the 29-year-old chief analytics officer, erupted in joy. The model was also projecting that Obama would be reelected. And as the night wore on, swing state after swing state came in with results that were very close to the model's prediction.

For the nation, last Tuesday was election day. For Wagner's crew, it's now known as Model Validation Day.

"We're kind of a weird bunch of kids," he said, standing near the Cave, where one wall was covered with a large canvas of a Martian landscape. "I haven't seen the sun in a while. We worked brutally inhuman hours this cycle. Twenty-hour days, often. But they bet a lot on us being right. And it was good to be right."

For years, campaigns have used reams of information to predict voter behavior, relying on a science known as analytics. But Obama's advisors elevated the practice to new heights, very likely changing the way presidential campaigns will be conducted in the future.

No other presidential campaign has so completely embraced this science. The campaign hired a team that topped out at 54 people and invested undisclosed millions in the effort. Analytics helped the campaign efficiently recruit volunteers, buy ads, tailor emails and mailers, raise money, dispatch surrogates — and, most importantly, scour the swing states for hard-to-find voters most likely to support the president.

Political guru David Plouffe and campaign manager Jim Messina made key decisions based on real-time reports from the geek squad, according to many people on the campaign's staff.

"Our entire goal is to make the maximum use of our time and our volunteers' time. And that means using analytics across the campaign spectrum," Messina said after the election. "We invested unprecedented resources to do this because our entire theory was to get as micro-targeted — to get as close to the ground — as we could."

PHOTOS: America goes to the polls

Another campaign official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak for the campaign, put it this way: "It's about turning over control to some nerds. And more than any other year, campaign leadership really took that leap of faith."

For campaign professionals, that is a major leap. Politics long has been ruled by truisms, conventional wisdom and intuition, with millions spent based on a murky mix of polling and focus groups. The shift to data-driven decision-making has been gradual and steady — becoming increasingly sophisticated as political parties amass more information about individual voters through traditional means, such as polls, and new ones, such as data mining.

The Obama campaign has made the transition over two elections. In this one, it employed analytics in a far more systematic and thorough way, officials said. But the work was a closely guarded secret. Officials denied requests for interviews with the analytics experts, and when journalists visited Obama headquarters, the team was ordered to shut the Cave door.

Victory opened that door — a crack.

PHOTOS: Reactions to Obama's victory

At its most basic, Messina, Wagner and others explained, the goal was to rank individual voters in the swing states based on their likelihood of voting for the president or of being persuaded to vote for him, to volunteer for his campaign and to vote early. The Obama campaign developed separate models for each.

To build the "support model," the campaign in 2011 made thousands of calls to voters — 5,000 to 10,000 in individual states, tens of thousands nationwide — to find out whether they backed the president. Then it analyzed what those voters had in common. More than 80 different pieces of information were factored in — including age, gender, voting history, home ownership and magazine subscriptions.

Much has been made of the last type of data — the tastes or trends that divide Democrats and Republicans. But Obama officials downplayed the impact of consumer habits, claiming the more important information is the most basic and publicly available.

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