Campaigns do, however, take in plenty of information about what voters believe, information that is not gathered in the form of a poll. It comes in voters’ own words, often registered onto the clipboards of canvassers, during a call-center phone conversation, in an online signup sequence or a stunt like “share your story.” As part of the Dreamcatcher project, Obama campaign officials have already set out to redesign the “notes” field on individual records in the database they use to track voters so that it sits visibly at the top of the screen—encouraging volunteers to gather and enter that information. And they’ve made the field large enough to include the “stories” submitted online. (One story was 60,000 text characters long.)
What can the campaign do with this blizzard of text snippets? Theoretically, Ghani could isolate keywords and context, then use statistical patterns gleaned from the examples of millions of voters to discern meaning. Say someone prattles on about “the auto bailout” to a volunteer canvasser: Is he lauding a signature domestic-policy achievement or is he a Tea Party sympathizer who should be excluded from Obama’s future outreach efforts? An algorithm able to interpret that voter’s actual words and sort them into categories might be able to make an educated guess. “They’re trying to tease out a lot more nuanced inferences about what people care about,” says a Democratic consultant who worked closely with Obama’s data team in 2008.
Obama’s campaign has boasted that one of their priorities this year is something they’ve described only as “microlistening,” but would officially not discuss how they intend to deploy insights gleaned from their new research into text analytics. “We have no plans to read out our data/analytics/voter contact strategy,” spokesman Ben LaBolt writes by email. “That just telegraphs to the other guys what we're up to.”