The US-election has come and gone and suddenly seemingly everyone agrees that “data” is the next big thing in political campaigns. This is great for journalists. Now they can update their pieces on the 2008 Obama-campaign by simply replacing the words “Facebook” and “Social Media” by the words “data” and “databases”. It’s also great for consultants since they are suddenly awarded with a new transformative, disruptive, and definitely decisive tool to sell to their clients. As such this is nothing new. The “microtargeting revolution” of the 90s and the “social media revolution” of 2008 were sold the same way.
So one could read the growing deluge of journalistic pieces on how Obama won with data with curiosity but reserved detachment:
- Databases: been there done that
- Campaigns buying data: only possible with the rather lax privacy regulation in the US
- Campaigns collecting data: too expensive, would lead to public outcry in other countries
- Campaigns using quantitative models: does not work without extensive databases
- Volunteers knocking on doors: specific to the US-context does not work in other countries
While some of these statements might have a point, they mistake new tools and campaign techniques for the true lesson of the US-campaign of 2012. The new tools and techniques used by the Obama-campaign are specific answers to a specific campaign context. As such they have probably little general applicability. But focusing on this means missing the bigger point: the innovations of the Obama campaign are rooted in the organisational culture of the campaign itself and the culture of its allies. This organisational culture holds important lessons for campaigns in different electoral, legal and cultural contexts. Ignoring these lessons means missing the bigger picture and just adopting a comfortable reading that justifies one’s business-as-usual approach.
Two of these changes in the organisational culture are:
- A quantitative turn in the selection, evaluation and interpretation of tried campaigning techniques off- and online
- A heavy emphasis on the training of campaigning staff in campaigning techniques and skills by the campaign and its allies
Both these trends have been identified and very well documented by scholars and practitioners alike. Still, there is the danger that these more nuanced accounts of the messy process of campaign innovation are ignored in favour of the breathless accounts of shiny new campaigning toys. If this happens this will lead to a boom-and-bust cycle for the use of “data” in campaigns that will resemble the hype surrounding the use of “social media” in campaigns.
To put the discussion of the real innovations of the Obama-campaigns of 2008 and 2012 and their potential influences on the election results on a sounder footing a short list of texts by scholars and practitioners might prove helpful. Sure, an article in one’s favourite newspaper or magazine might be a quicker read, but – as argued above – in choosing these accounts one would more often than not sacrifice sound analysis for peace of mind.
Background on political campaigns in the USA:
General analysis of the campaign 2008:
General analysis of the campaign 2012:
Organisational culture of Democratic campaigns and their allies:
Get out the Vote:
- Sasha Issenberg: Obama Does It Better
Very good interview with Matthew Hindman on the role of the Internet in the US campaigns of 2012.
Very helpful account of what is presently know about the analytical efforts of the Obama campaign by Lois Beckett.