Obama's Data Team Totally Schooled Gallup

In the new issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, I have a short feature about how Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, is investing millions in a new company with Dan Wagner and two dozen other veterans of the Obama campaign’s data analytics team. Schmidt was, not surprisingly, full of praise for the engineers, statisticians, and scientists whose work informed the strategy of a campaign that won by 5 million votes. But given the collaborative effort and many moving parts of a modern presidential campaign, it can be difficult to isolate the data team’s contribution. One great example, though, is the intricate mathematical models of swing states that Wagner and colleagues built that were meant to offer an alternative glimpse of the state of the race to public polls and even the campaign’s internal polls.

As David Plouffe, then a senior White House adviser, explained in my story, the data team’s models proved to be much steadier and more accurate than even the traditional tracking polls the campaign was also conducting. A number of Obama vets repeated this claim to me, so I asked them to provide some evidence to back it up, and they did. Here, for the first time, is a chart based on internal data that shows how the Obama campaign’s swing state model performed against the much maligned Gallup poll over the last several months of the race. This was the campaign’s daily “horserace” projection of the outcome, based on a nightly survey of 10,000 people.

To me, a few thing jump out: Gallup indicates that the selection of Paul Ryan as running mate hurt Mitt Romney, but Obama’s model really doesn’t; Gallup suggests, incredibly, that the “47 Percent” flap hurt Obama and moved the race back in Romney’s direction; and, biggest of all, Gallup shows a huge drop for Obama—really, an outright collapse—after the debacle of the first debate. At the time, Obama’s staffers were claiming to the press that, yes, their internal numbers showed the president’s weak showing had hurt his support, but that the fall was brief and quickly stabilized right about where his level of support had been all along. As a reporter, you never know if you’re just being spun when campaigns tell you this, because even if they really were collapsing the way Gallup suggests, they’d probably lie about it and say everything was fine, so as not to feed the panic. Based on this data, though, the Obama campaign looks to have been telling the truth.

One last bit of color I wanted to include in the original piece but couldn’t fit. David Axelrod, for one, had enough faith in his data guys that he was willing to bet his mustache on it. A week before the election, Axelrod wandered back to The Cave, where the analytics team worked, to ask point-blank if Obama would win Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania. Newspapers were reporting surging crowds at Romney rallies and waning enthusiasm for Obama. Wagner said he thought he would. The next day, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Axelrod announced he would shave his mustache if Obama were to lose even one of those states. He won all three.

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