At Technology Review
, Sasha Issenberg has a three-part series on how the Obama campaign
to target individual voters
In the 2008 presidential election, Obama’s targeters had assigned every voter in the country a pair of scores based on the probability that the individual would perform two distinct actions that mattered to the campaign: casting a ballot and supporting Obama. These scores were derived from an unprecedented volume of ongoing survey work. For each battleground state every week, the campaign’s call centers conducted 5,000 to 10,000 so-called short-form interviews that quickly gauged a voter’s preferences, and 1,000 interviews in a long-form version that was more like a traditional poll. To derive individual-level predictions, algorithms trawled for patterns between these opinions and the data points the campaign had assembled for every voter—as many as one thousand variables each, drawn from voter registration records, consumer data warehouses, and past campaign contacts.
This innovation was most valued in the field. There, an almost perfect cycle of microtargeting models directed volunteers to scripted conversations with specific voters at the door or over the phone. Each of those interactions produced data that streamed back into Obama’s servers to refine the models pointing volunteers toward the next door worth a knock. The efficiency and scale of that process put the Democrats well ahead when it came to profiling voters. John McCain’s campaign had, in most states, run its statistical model just once, assigning each voter to one of its microtargeting segments in the summer. McCain’s advisors were unable to recalculate the probability that those voters would support their candidate as the dynamics of the race changed. Obama’s scores, on the other hand, adjusted weekly, responding to new events like Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential nomination or the collapse of Lehman Brothers.
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.
Romney’s political department began holding regular meetings to look at where in the country the Obama campaign was focusing resources like ad dollars and the president’s time. The goal was to try to divine the calculations behind those decisions. It was, in essence, the way Microsoft’s Bing approached Google: trying to reverse-engineer the market leader’s code by studying the visible output. “We watch where the president goes,” Dan Centinello, the Romney deputy political director who oversaw the meetings, said over the summer.
Obama’s media-buying strategy proved particularly hard to decipher. In early September, as part of his standard review, Lundry noticed that the week after the Democratic convention, Obama had aired 68 ads in Dothan, Alabama, a town near the Florida border. Dothan was one of the country’s smallest media markets, and Alabama one of the safest Republican states. Even though the area was known to savvy ad buyers as one of the places where a media market crosses state lines, Dothan TV stations reached only about 9,000 Florida voters, and around 7,000 of them had voted for John McCain in 2008. “This is a hard-core Republican media market,” Lundry says. “It’s incredibly tiny. But they were advertising there.”
Romney’s advisors might have formed a theory about the broader media environment, but whatever was sending Obama hunting for a small pocket of votes was beyond their measurement. “We could tell,” says McGoldrick, “that there was something in the algorithms that was telling them what to run.”
The scope of the analytic research enabled it to pick up movements too small for traditional polls to perceive. As Simas reviewed Wagner’s analytic tables in mid-October, he was alarmed to see that what had been a Romney lead of one to two points in Green Bay, Wisconsin, had grown into an advantage of between six and nine. Green Bay was the only media market in the state to experience such a shift, and there was no obvious explanation. But it was hard to discount. Whereas a standard 800-person statewide poll might have reached 100 respondents in the Green Bay area, analytics was placing 5,000 calls in Wisconsin in each five-day cycle—and benefiting from tens of thousands of other field contacts—to produce microtargeting scores. Analytics was talking to as many people in the Green Bay media market as traditional pollsters were talking to across Wisconsin every week. “We could have the confidence level to say, ‘This isn’t noise,’” says Simas. So the campaign’s media buyers aired an ad attacking Romney on outsourcing and beseeched Messina to send former president Bill Clinton and Obama himself to rallies there. (In the end, Romney took the county 50.3 to 48.5 percent.)