The Making of a (Big Data) President

A campaign volunteer inputs data into a computer at a campaign office for President Barack Obama, on Oct. 8, 2012 in Miami Photograph by Lynne Sladky/AP Photo

For the first time in presidential politics, there is a considerable focus on the role that large amounts of data played in the course of the campaign. Technology has always been important for any political campaign, but in this presidential election, both campaigns attempted to use Big Data analytics as a strategic weapon. There were some important lessons to learn from how the data were used—and misused.

The Big Data vogue will forever be a part of any well-run campaign, but the data have to be collected and managed in a well-planned manner. Who are the names that campaigns are collecting, and more importantly, when were those names collected? The fact that Obama began collecting names more than four years ago gave the campaign a strategic advantage. The Obama campaign seemed to have a strategy and plan for not only how data would be collected but how the information would be used. I suspect that when we reach 2016, more money will be spent on the data game as will be spent on the ground game.

The value of Big Data is as much about execution as it is about the amount of data. One of the difficult lessons the Romney campaign learned was that if you don’t execute well, it doesn’t matter how sophisticated your technology is. The Romney campaign built a Big Data system intended to track which supporters had voted and which ones needed to be contacted. But there were problems. Many operatives were given the wrong password to access the system. In addition, the site itself could not scale to meet the access requirements of all the Romney volunteers in the field. Romney’s Big Data system was intended to be the secret weapon to get out the vote. The truth, however, is that technology has to be used in conjunction with the right strategy. Having a well-executed ground game can sometimes trump the best technology efforts.

We are early in the Big Data revolution. It enables an organization to get deep insights and predict outcomes. But like any technology revolution, it needs to have a well-constructed road map and plan. A variety of approaches to managing data have to come together to create a well-orchestrated strategy. For example, some data need to be monitored and managed in real time. Other data need to be collected from a variety of sources so that unanticipated trends can be picked up. Once you know what questions to ask, it will be too late.

What is the lesson to be learned from two political campaigns? The Romney campaign put its faith in a sophisticated technology engine believing that would compensate for a weaker ground game. In contrast, the Obama campaign had the luxury of a well-tested Big Data strategy combined with a strong ground game. Managing data is not a simple exercise. You can’t depend on either technology or process alone.

Will Big Data be the difference between success and failure of a political campaign? The answer is yes and no. When Big Data analytics are used strategically to support a plan, success has a good chance. When Big Data is the strategy, that’s a recipe for failure.