How Data Geeks Are Changing Politics Forever
Here’s Why Old School Consultants Don’t Like Data Nerds
It happened in 2007.
That’s when data changed American politics forever; when Nate Silver found himself frustrated by political analysis that was unsophisticated, analysis that was enamored with strategy and ignored quantitative measures like polls and demographics.
Silver put his own statistical modelling experience to work, and went on to successfully call the outcomes in 49 of the 50 states.
In 2012 he bested himself, correctly predicting the winner of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Silver had proved his point; data was more accurate, more valuable, and more actionable than all the from-the-gut strategies of traditional political consultants.
“[Silver] changed the way elections are covered for good … [He] has proven to the public the power of Big Data in transforming our electoral process … This serves as yet another example of computers showing their ability to be better at handling the unknown than loud-talking experts.”
- Forbes: Nate Silver And The Rise Of Political Data Science
Campaigns Jump On The Data Train
Data modeling and micro-targeting were key to George W. Bush’s successful presidential campaigns.
Later, the 2012 Obama campaign’s success is likewise attributed to the very savvy use of data analysis, social media, and digital advertising to reach and build trust with a targeted audience.
Maybe that’s why a data analyst in Washington D.C. can command $74,000 on average, and as high as $116,000 if they’re awesome (Indeed.com).
There’s real money being spent on data, and the analysts who know how to put it to work. According to the FEC, $7 billion was spent on the 2012 presidential electoral campaigns, making it the most expensive in history.
Geeks Tailored The Message
Of the total sum raised by candidates, over $500 million was put towards use of big data and political campaign ads.
It was data that defined the target audience for those ads; and the analysis of that data that helped the campaign understand the audience well enough to craft the perfect message they’d respond to.
That analysis was the work of data scientists; analysts who understood exactly how to put the raw numbers to good use.
“A good deal of credit for President Obama’s re-election has gone to his campaign’s sophistication at interpreting data about potential voters and its use of behavioral research to get supporters to actually vote.”
- NPR: Obama’s Political Moneyball Could Be The Shape Of Campaigns To Come
Obama’s 2012 campaign hired a multi-disciplinary team of statisticians, predictive modelers, data-mining experts, mathematicians, software programmers, and quantitative analysts, building an analytics department five times as large as that of its 2008 campaign.
And in a tidal shift of strategy, the Obama team relied more on big data analytics than on traditional outside media consultants. Their data-focused approach put targeted messages on the web, mobile, TV, and social media, to micro-target potential supporters with analytics-driven tailored messages, and ultimately drove critical turnout in swing states.
The success of all that super personalized messaging on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram showed the campaign what digital marketers have understood for years…
“We spent $1 billion to figure out a simple truth: What your friends, family and neighbors say is more important to your consumer decisions and your political decisions than anything else.”
- Jim Messina, 2012 Obama Campaign Manager
Data Won The Election
The results speak for themselves: Data won the election for Obama.
And it hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“The  election demonstrated that analytics fueled by big data and advancement in computing technology has become an integral part of the US presidential campaign process. The real winner of the 2012 election is analytics.”
- Analytics Magazine
That’s why political dependence on data analytics to reach and influence the electorate has only grown. In this 2016 Presidential cycle, the focus is less on hands shaken and babies kissed, and more on the ROI of advertising… resulting in a KPI called “cost per vote (CPV).”
Yep, campaign success is measured like a digital ad campaign… on cost per conversion.
From CNN to the Washington Post, political wonks are tracking how much candidates are spending to determine just how much it costs them to get each vote. And with CPV numbers swinging from 15 cents to over five dollars, it’s clear that the more efficiently campaigns can target their ad spend and social efforts, the further their ever increasing political budgets will go to secure victories.
There’s big money in politics, and it’s the analysts who will determine how best to spend it.
Old School Consultants Don’t Like Data Nerds
But just as in industry, this inevitable change isn’t going to come easy.
“Grizzled consultants who have done this for years don’t like being told by nerds that their stuff doesn’t work.”
- John Sides Ph.D., George Washington University
Sides goes on to say “[I]t’s been an uphill battle at times even within the Democratic Party … It’s going to take some explicit investment by GOP activists and leaders to begin to transform how the party conceives of voter mobilization and persuasion.”
That’s always been the case for data geeks… turning an industry on its ear only puts the dinosaurs on the defensive.
But the worm is turning, and analysts will outnumber, out-deliver, and out-earn traditional consultants in no time. Because in the end it’s results that matter; and the data scientists are delivering results.
Resistance Is Futile
This is politics now and in the future.
Both the Democrats and the Republican party, as well as grassroots third party candidates, are embracing the value of crunching the big numbers to target their spend and increase their effectiveness in getting their message out. From now on, politics will only become more dependent on data — and data scientists who know their stuff — to reach not only their supporters, but those all-important undecided voters, and secure the big wins.
Data scientists, not old-school consultants, will determine how political parties spend their ad dollars, by shining a light on what voters think, which communities to target, which doors campaign workers should knock on, what questions they should ask, and how to sway donors both large and small.
Those who don’t see the light may just be doomed to obscurity in the shadow of politics’ digital revolution.
Because those with the best data — and the best analysts — will win.
Indeed: Data Analyst jobs in Washington, DC
Forbes: Nate Silver And The Rise Of Political Data Science
NPR: Obama’s Political Moneyball Could Be The Shape Of Campaigns To Come
Analytics Magazine: Big data, analytics and elections
CNN: Super Tuesday: How much each vote cost