The technological superiority of the Obama campaign has been well-covered, but Sasha Issenberg at MIT’s Technology Review offers us a deeper and even unsettling look at just what it accomplished. Along the way, he also introduces us to someone who may make Nate Silver of Fivethirtyeight fame not only envious, but downright anachronistic.
Political junkies will remember the hotly contested 2009 special election in New York’s 23rd Congressional District. Issenberg, author of “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns,” introduces us to Dan Wagner, who predicted the outcome of that election within a 150- vote margin. In 2010, Republican Scott Brown pulled off a surprising victory for the U.S. Senate seat left vacant by the death of Ted Kennedy. Wagner, however, had predicted Brown’s victory months before the election took place. In the 2010 congressional midterms, which the Republicans won, he correctly predicted the outcome with uncanny accuracy five months before the fact.
That performance was enough to get Wagner’s data-mining project considerable funding and manpower from the Democratic National Committee and the Obama campaign. The result? As Issenberg puts it in a three-part series, while the campaign fielded all of the most sophisticated technology, that was only the beginning. In battleground states, they wanted the mind-boggling ability to identify and track individual voters, determine what would convince those individual voters to vote Obama, and then deliver that convincing material to them.
As Issenberg describes it:
“But underneath all that were scores describing particular voters: a new political currency that predicted the behavior of individual humans. The campaign didn’t just know who you were; it knew exactly how it could turn you into the type of person it wanted you to be….
Obama’s campaign began the election year confident it knew the name of every one of the 69,456,897 Americans whose votes had put him in the White House. They may have cast those votes by secret ballot, but Obama’s analysts could look at the Democrats’ vote totals in each precinct and identify the people most likely to have backed him. Pundits talked in the abstract about reassembling Obama’s 2008 coalition. But within the campaign, the goal was literal. They would reassemble the coalition, one by one, through personal contacts….
Before the polls opened in Ohio, authorities in Hamilton County, the state’s third-largest and home to Cincinnati, released the names of 103,508 voters who had cast early ballots over the previous month. Wagner sorted them by microtargeting projections and found that 58,379 had individual support scores over 50.1—that is, the campaign’s models predicted that they were more likely than not to have voted for Obama. That amounted to 56.4 percent of the county’s votes, or a raw lead of 13,249 votes over Romney. Early ballots were the first to be counted after Ohio’s polls closed, and Obama’s senior staff gathered around screens in the boiler room to see the initial tally. The numbers settled almost exactly where Wagner had said they would: Obama got 56.6 percent of the votes in Hamilton County. In Florida, he was as close to the mark; Obama’s margin was only two-tenths of a percent off.”
When you read things like that and compare it to Karl Rove’s plaintive Election Night plea that Ohio was still winnable for Mitt Romney, you begin to understand just how significantly the science of campaigning has changed, and how much of a march the Democrats have stolen.
– Jay Bookman