Politics and Public Opinion, Elections

Why Romney lost: Obama won the battle of ‘Big Data’

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore (Flickr) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image Credit: Gage Skidmore (Flickr) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

OK, there are a lot of reasons why Romney lost. But one critical reason is that Obama’s ground game was far superior to Romney’s, thanks to an unprecedented experiment in political data mining that allowed the Obama campaign to conduct unprecedented micro-targetting in its fundraising, advertising, and GOTV efforts. Time’s Michael Scherer lifts the veil on the Obama operation in “Inside the Secret World of the Data Crunchers Who Helped Obama Win”:

[F]rom the beginning, campaign manager Jim Messina had promised a totally different, metric-driven kind of campaign in which politics was the goal but political instincts might not be the means. “We are going to measure every single thing in this campaign,” he said after taking the job. He hired an analytics department five times as large as that of the 2008 operation, with an official “chief scientist” for the Chicago headquarters named Rayid Ghani, who in a previous life crunched huge data sets to, among other things, maximize the efficiency of supermarket sales promotions.

Exactly what that team of dozens of data crunchers was doing, however, was a closely held secret. “They are our nuclear codes,” campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt would say when asked about the efforts. Around the office, data-mining experiments were given mysterious code names such as Narwhal and Dreamcatcher. The team even worked at a remove from the rest of the campaign staff, setting up shop in a windowless room at the north end of the vast headquarters office. The “scientists” created regular briefings on their work for the President and top aides in the White House’s Roosevelt Room, but public details were in short supply as the campaign guarded what it believed to be its biggest institutional advantage over Mitt Romney’s campaign: its data.

On Nov. 4, a group of senior campaign advisers agreed to describe their cutting-edge efforts with TIME on the condition that they not be named and that the information not be published until after the winner was declared. What they revealed as they pulled back the curtain was a massive data effort that helped Obama raise $1 billion, remade the process of targeting TV ads and created detailed models of swing-state voters that could be used to increase the effectiveness of everything from phone calls and door knocks to direct mailings and social media.

You can read the full article here.

Republicans had nothing like this operation, and the results are evident. They’d better catch up fast. As Scherer reports “the role of the campaign pros in Washington who make decisions on hunches and experience is rapidly dwindling, being replaced by the work of quants and computer coders who can crack massive data sets for insight. As one official put it, the time of guys sitting in a back room smoking cigars, saying ‘We always buy 60 Minutes’’ is over. In politics, the era of big data has arrived.”

9 thoughts on “Why Romney lost: Obama won the battle of ‘Big Data’

  1. Translation: While Obama’s team was using intelligence in their game the GOP was off on another witch hunt, this time poll conspiracies.


    • What “intelligence?” The Obama campaign simply used the tried and true tactics of lying, promising gifts it can’t deliver, and using the Mainstream Media to spin. And they barely won. Romney’s campaign worked – he won all the debates and even the Democrats were beginning to think they would lose big.

  2. For a dose of perspective, consider this: the big-brained “quants” at Long Term Capital Management thought they had it all figured out too. So did the alchemists who sold us on the notion that they could take high-risk mortgages and “slice & dice” them into triple-A rated investments.

    It’s easy for us mere mortals to be impressed with the efforts of such types, but at the end of the day they’re trying to assign numbers to social behavior–to PEOPLE, who often don’t behave as they say or even think they will.

    Whether these quants have the answer or just another VERY expensive opinion is a matter of pure speculation at this point. Seems like high-level tail chasing to me, but there is a possibility that there’s something to it. But what can’t be denied is that more people thought Obama would make a better President than Romney. It really is that simple.

    • re: ” more people thought Obama would make a better President than Romney. It really is that simple.”

      and that’s what the polls were saying – but The GOP instead of focusing on the data – chose to, first – claim there was a “conspiracy” among pollsters and then claimed that ALL pollsters were using a wrong turn-out model and that Romney was really ahead and would win easily.

      The GOP and it’s ideologue supporters have gotten themselves into believing what they wish to believe – until the elections proved what folly that was.

      If the GOP had focused on the same demographics that the Dems focused us and done their own targeted turn-out efforts.. they might have won.

      so they basically shot themselves in the foot screwing around with their little self-constructed worlds of what they liked to believe rather than looking at realities.

      Of course this is the same GOP that thinks they can win over Blacks and Hispanics and others by “explaining” to them GOP “principles” instead of actually seeking to represent the interests of the minorities also.

      Blacks and Hispanics tend to be family-oriented with conservative values but the GOP can’t get past the fact that they’re not white guys.

      The GOP needs to 1. deal with realities – and face the facts and 2. – accept the reality that minorities are a
      growing demographic and winning without them is going
      to get harder and harder.

      • Actually what the polls are saying is people are buying promises even as they see they can’t be delivered. Just what does “the GOP is supposed to represent the interests of the minorities” mean anyway? Is the GOP supposed to ignore the “illegal” in illegal immigration the way the Democrats do?

  3. If this is true then Romney came alot closer than the figures suggest. Shows what it takes to win these days. And they were up against a smart team. Won’t be so easy next time.

  4. wrong. romney lost because the GOP made every minority in this country feel uncomfortable with the things you allowed to be said.

    … and you saw what happened.

    A ground game can only enhance fundamentals.

  5. All this data crunching is interesting from a technical standpoint. However, all it illustrates, to me at least, is that appeals that work in retail advertising also works in politics. This acknowledgement should be recognized as a very sobering realization.
    Barnum ( of Bailey fame) would be pleased indeed. Meanwhile, the country slips further.

  6. Republicans blew it big time when they pissed off the Ron Paul supporters who gained control of many operations at the local level. Instead of letting Dr. Paul have his say they pushed out his crowd and needed to redeploy resources in areas that already should have had enough to help get a better turnout.

    Of course, the ground support is not all that important when you compare it to the candidate. Few could get excited about Mitt because he was a man without principle or anything in the way of charisma that would help generate excitement. He lost the election when he made Obama look like the peace candidate by talking up war in Iran and an increase in military spending at a time when the US has no nation capable of opposing it on the battlefield. Instead of attacking on the civil liberties issue he argued that Obama had not gone far enough and portrayed himself as the bigger police state candidate. Frankly, the Democrats could not have handpicked a much better opponent for their man.

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