Big Data Driving Election Strategies, But You Still Need The Right Message

There was an interesting article in the New York Times about the way large scale data analysis is re-shaping the way political campaigns are run, from micro-targeting messages to predicting voter behavior and more. We all know this has been going on for some time, but the impact hit me the other night when I was sitting around the table at a campaign meeting for an old friend.

We've been working together since 1986, and back then the only "data" we had was voter lists we got from the local board of elections - which my friend used to walk precincts and generate mailing labels. In those days, our meetings were dominated by the minutiae of gathering sign locations, planning for fund-raisers and events like parades, and generally trying to get a "feel" for which way the voters were going. We had a working group of about 8-10 people that were regulary involved in a single city ward campaign.

In contrast, I sat at the table the other night with just three people, reviewing the progress for a city wide campaign. Most of our time was spent talking about voter lists and campaign reports, crunching data and sorting combined lists to refine the information we needed to target specific neighborhoods and fix sign locations. This was folowed by a conversation about automated calls and gathering that data to further refine targeting and campaign messages. Sure, we touched on subjects like fund raising, mailers and volunteers, but there was a certain detachment to the process that struck me.

I guess I liken the "old days" to hunting in the woods with a shotgun--not sure what you might find--but aware that you could only rely on your senses to tell you what was going on, and that you could only be sure of the result at the very end. It was thrilling right up to the last minute--and fun. Today, the process feels much more like ordering up a drone strike on a computer screen; there's a coldness and a distance to the process that I can't say I enjoy...and that's probably why I didn't talk a lot during the meeting.

Today's data-centered approach makes things a lot easier and more predictable, it's true. It saves a lot of time and needless worry as well. But in the end, you still need to craft the right message. While polling and research can help with that, candidates and their teams may have even more success by also "trusting their gut." That means getting out in front of the research, going "out into the woods" and discovering the things that data alone just can't tell you. The result allows you to develop and embrace strong themes and ideas that actually gather and capture voters.

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