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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

It's not about subscriptions to "Cat Fancy" magazine, Wagner joked as he scribbled on a white board, blinking through his rectangular glasses. The most important data, he said, was the Democratic National Committee's database, containing voting history and demographic information, as well as feedback from contacts with individual voters going back to 1992, such as whether a voter warmly received a door-to-door canvasser or shut the door curtly.

The campaign compared the data on individual voters with the "support model" and ranked voters from 1 to 100, which told the campaign where to focus its turnout efforts.

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The notion of a campaign looking for groups such as "soccer moms" or "waitress moms" to convert is outdated. Campaigns can now pinpoint individual swing voters. "White suburban women? They're not all the same. The Latino community is very diverse with very different interests," Wagner said. "What the data permits you to do is to figure out that diversity."

One of the campaign's most powerful tools was its "persuasion model," which sifted through millions of voters that the DNC had labeled as not very partisan to find those most likely to be won over to Obama's side.

In Obama's 2008 campaign, as in most campaigns, these "middle partisans" were assumed to be swing voters and were heavily targeted. But in reality, many are partisan conservatives, and many more don't vote.

So early this year, the Obama campaign called more than 10,000 voters in the category and talked to them about the president's views on healthcare and taxes, the official said. Then it called those voters back a few days later to find out if their opinions had shifted. The campaign analyzed those who had moved toward Obama to find out what they had in common and, from those results, created a separate model of persuadable voters for each swing state.

A data director applied the model to the voter databases and generated lists of voters to be contacted. Those were put in the hands of canvassers who were also armed with a script tailored to an individual voter's pet issues.

The Obama campaign even found voters to target in ruby-red precincts, a break from earlier campaigns when solidly partisan precincts were simply written off.

Among its many decisions driven by data, the campaign chose to stick it out in Florida, even though polls and conventional wisdom raised doubts about Obama's odds in the GOP-tilted battleground.

Just weeks before the election, the analytics team's assessment suggested a 30% to 40% chance of winning the state, Wagner said. But after the team added information about roughly 250,000 new voter registrations, the projection shifted, showing that 80% of the new registrants would vote and they would heavily support Obama.

When the computers spat out this data, indicating that Obama was likely to win in Florida, a howl went up from the Cave. A mathematician from the University of Alabama started it off with the 'Bama fighting words, "Roll Tide!"

Two days before the election, the president went to Florida to bolster that turnout — and ended up narrowly winning the state.

Days after election day, Obama campaign workers were packing up, pulling flags off the ceiling and pictures off the wall.

But the Cave still hummed with computers. The decor was still up, including the landscape of Mars, its presence explained by a printout taped next to it. In a July 2011 Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan, a conservative author who wrote speeches for President Reagan, mocked an Obama campaign hiring notice for specialists in "predictive modeling/data mining."

"It read like politics as done by Martians," she wrote.

With the Martian scene behind him, Andrew Claster, an economist and deputy chief, pored over exit polls and early vote data. Nearby, Rayid Ghani, the team's chief data scientist, tried to discern more about how to motivate people online. It's part of an ongoing effort to mine the data for future Democratic campaigns and causes.

"What we've had since '06 and especially since '08," Wagner said, "is a change in how people think about this information and how they use it."

In other words, the Martians have landed.

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