Less ideology, more tailored solutions: how data science reshapes political campaigns

Even though the U.S. presidential election is still months away, primaries are already in full swing. So far, Donald Trump’s populist campaign, paired with an anti-establishment message seems to resonate well with the voter base as he is leading the Republican field going into the decisive weeks of the primaries. In the GOP, only Ted Cruz and John Kasich remain as challengers. Interestingly, Ted Cruz is also the Republican candidate, which has made the most extensive use of voter profiling and targeting, utilizing big data at full fledge. Reason enough, to explore what role and application data science plays behind the scenes of this year’s U.S. presidential campaign.

Tailored everything: messages, ads, mailings, TV spots

Running an efficient campaign for U.S. president, or for being the respective party candidate, is a costly endeavour. Mobilizing fundraising is thus key for all wannabe-candidates. While lots of the fundraising activities happen at private dinner gatherings with the wealthy and influential few, grassroot donations also play a huge role. In 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama championed this approach and managed to out-fundraise his competitors by large margins. With all eligible individuals as a target group, maximizing individual donations with limited effort is crucial.

This year is no different. Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders, John Kasich or Hillary Clinton (and at an earlier stage Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush) – they all seek to acquire as much data as possible about likely and potential voters and use this information to tailor all outreach mechanisms to those individual profiles. Newsletter mailings with donation appeals thus carry different messages, door-to-door volunteers are equipped with individual scripts to convince voters, TV ads are produced and aired in a highly specific geographic manner. Literally, all kind of efforts to mobilize voters and voter donations are driven by data. Behind that is a very simple logic, which drives e-commerce and political campaigns alike: Targeted advertisement increases the probability of success or conversion, while keeping spending at a moderate level and thus enables campaigns to maximize their return on investment.

No programme, but massive data sets fuel campaigns

Once registered in the U.S. presidential primaries, candidates usually apply for access to their party’s voter database. This is the core of all data-driven campaigns. This database contains highly personal information on an individual level, including general information such as address and zip codes, enriched with voting history and other specific preferences. This is the data nucleus, which individual candidates enrich in various way. Local volunteers structure their observations from door-to-door visits and tag it to individual records, town hall attendance lists are matched with voting records, social media presence and donation behavior are appended – opportunities for data enhancement are manifold.

This forms the power engine of any kind of campaign optimization as the vast data set allows data scientists and data engineers to do their work. Prediction algorithms can determine, which candidates are most likely to cast their vote, determine the best strategy and message to approach them and estimate their maximum donation capacity. Given the richness of personal data, campaigns can cluster voters into psychological profiles, which allows them for more leverage when it comes to conveying their message.

This can – as should be noted – be on the borderline to ethical misconduct. Ted Cruz’s campaign, the current GOP contender and Tea Party darling, was allegedly involved into sending out physical mailings to voters, using peer pressure and psychological tricks to influence their voting behaviour. Asked about the incident, Cruz didn’t apologize. On the contrary, his response mirrored the understanding that these are the new rules of the game and he and his campaign are willing to utilize any kind of data point available to achieve an edge in polling and voting turnout. And, one should add, his strong performance so far with victories in Iowa and Texas seems to underline his point.

Are political campaigns run by data scientists?

Looking at the tremendous success Barack Obama had in his data-driven campaigns in 2008 and 2012, Republicans are trying to match the field for the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The Republican Party recruited key employees from tech giants like Facebook to get their overarching voter database up to speed. And nearly every contestant now employs significant staff solely dedicated to data, data science, data engineering or similar tasks geared towards tapping into the full potential of voter and behavioural data. Ted Cruz has reportedly spend a significant amount of his budget for the services of Cambridge Analytica, a big data analytics firm, which claims to revolutionize the way campaigns are run – by making them more efficient, more targeted, smarter and more data-driven in order to achieve and influence larger audiences. Other candidates are turning to companies like L2 Political or Targeted Victory, in order get their data operations up and running.

With so much data science at the heart of the current U.S. presidential campaign, what will be the role of the political campaign experts? Claiming to be superior in sensing and segmenting audiences, their role very much resembles the value proposition of the data scientist. Indeed, the political consultant’s wisdom is – to a large extent – based on years of experience in the field. The applicability of this experience, however, might be flawed. Just because it worked last time, does not mean it works this time. Data science can – for once – be an effective challenger of conventional (political expert) wisdom and also provide a meaningful tool for the (self-reflecting) political campaign expert of the 21st century. As an effective mirror for intuition and experience, it enables fast testing and rapid iteration, optimizing any kind of campaign strategy with past and live data. At the end of the day, U.S. presidential campaigns are not so much about the overall message, but about who drives down the message in a most convincing and tailored way to the electorate. This might be a little disillusional for the political idealist, but that’s essentially just how politics works.


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