Obama vs Romney: What the Polling Data Says About American Voters

ByDan Whateley

Think the 2012 election is going to be won on Facebook?

Think again. “Social” is so 2008. To paraphrase Alistair Croll from the O’Reilly Radar,  after JFK you couldn’t win an election without television. After Obama, you couldn’t win an election without social media. And in 2012, the game-changer will be big data.

This is the age of political Moneyball. Just as Billy Beane used statistics to optimize recruiting for the 2002 Oakland A’s, the biggest campaigns have brought statistics to Election 2012. By accessing thousands of data points on each individuals, campaigns can use micro-targeting to customize how they communicate with you.

They know every last characteristic about you, including your name, your age, your gender, what you like, what you buy, who your friends are, your home, email, and IP addresses (noticed those Obama or Romney ads following you around the internet?), your voting record and tax record, census data — thousands of pieces of information on every registered voter available publicly or for purchase in the voter file, commercial databases, and social graphs, of the kind more typically used by catalogue- mailers and credit-scorers. The campaigns are optimizing their message to pull you to their side and turn you out to vote. For example, if you are an unemployed pro-choice female from Michigan (and yes, they probably know if you are), the Romney or Obama campaigns will likely email you or serve you an online ad on how they will help promote job growth or defend Roe v. Wade

“Right now, if you want to call this the ‘data arms race,’ clearly Democrats are ahead,” Alex Gage, the CEO of TargetPoint Consulting, stated in a Bloomberg interview last winter. According to Slate Magazine’s Sasha Issenberg, author of The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns, direct regional data and targeting and analytics were central to Obama’s 2008 campaign, and even more so in 2012. The Romney campaign is playing “catch-up,” Issenberg said in a recent CBS interview, in part by rapidly filling its digital department with former employees from companies like Apple and Google.

Today’s campaigns are running a modern-age marketing campaign replete with the biggest data troves and most current analytical tools available in the age of the internet. Nothing wrong with that, right? 

Perhaps not. But it does become rather disconcerting when we look at the flip side. If elections are meant to assess our leaders’ past performances and select those who we think will best represent us the next time around, shouldn’t we be comparably in-the-know about whom we are voting for?

Present reality shows we’re failing. In a January study by the Pew Research Center on voter awareness of the GOP candidates, only 53% of those polled knew that Mitt Romney had served as governor of Massachusetts. On the issues, only 44% of voters knew that Ron Paul was the Republican candidate who opposed military involvement in Afghanistan. Millennials aged 18-29 fared even worse; Only 32% knew that Romney had previously served as Massachusetts governor, and 38% knew Paul’s position on Afghanistan.

Our inability as voters to identify even basic information about candidates contrasts sharply with the campaigns’ ability to know exactly where individual voters stand. And though I’m pointing out this discrepancy, I should disclose that I am equally ignorant when it comes to being informed about politicians. If asked, I would totally fail to identify many of my elected officials, let alone be able to tell you where they stand on the issues most important to me.

Since graduating from college this spring I’ve been interning for ElectNext, a start-up that aims to bridge this big data divide. Where politicians have amassed tens of millions of data points on all of us, ElectNext is doing the same on all of them, for us. ElectNext is combining official positions from websites, statements and press releases, interest group ratings, campaign finance data, legislative data on proposals for and votes on bills, direct responses to its survey from the politicians themselves, and research from ElectNext members to build a database of tens of millions of data points on all politicians on all the issues.

On top of this big database ElectNext is building free tools, like the candidate matching widget below, to help us easily inform and engage.This resource helps us determine how we match up to our candidates on our most important issues so that we can be more active players in this big data-powered election.