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Friday Fun for the IT Crowd: Tech transforms presidential campaigns

February 5, 2016

By Lisa Dare



Campaigns get serious about data and tech

The Iowa Caucuses are a fascinating study in an old style of politicking and community life. Eschewing secret ballots, neighbors gather in big rooms to hash out their differences and recruit undecided voters.

This method is messy and decidedly old-fashioned. You can watch national news anchors trying not to squee at its antiquated charm. Yet, technology played a key behind-the-scenes role in Iowa, and is quickly transforming presidential campaigns. 

Iowa goes high-tech

This year, Microsoft debuted an app to help the major political parties track caucus delegate counts. Instead of calling in precinct results, volunteer leaders used their smartphones to file results. In a trust-but-verify moment, both Democratic front-runners created their own back-up apps.

But the donated app, which garnered a lot of attention for Microsoft, is just the tip of the technology iceberg. Campaigns have finally gotten serious about technology and are using it to create real—and possibly game-changing—advantages. They're also pushing the limits of data science. 

Tech may have won the 2008 presidential election

The campaign of Barack Obama was the first to grok Big Data, shocking Obama’s rivals (and the world) by using technology to out-organize other candidates.

It’s a unique example because the campaign used technology to scale old-fashioned neighbor-to-neighbor organizing on a massive level. The campaign seeded battleground states with young organizers who recruited local volunteers and trained them to build and lead their own units. Volunteers canvassed their own communities to persuade voters, recruit new volunteers—and perhaps most importantly—collect voter data.

The data may have tipped the scales by allowing a well-coordinated effort to target persuadable voters with concentrated appeals like calls and mailed ads. More critically, the data enabled an army of volunteers to target election-day activities—mainly in-person visits—to encourage known supporters to get out and vote.

By 2012, the Obama campaign’s tech had really grown up. It took micro-targeting of voters significantly further, integrating public voting data, field-generated information, online behavior profiles and information collected via its website, and then used it to target contacts like call scripts and direct mail messages.

Another amazing example of tech living up to its promise: On Election Day, the campaign could notify supporters which of their Facebook friends hadn’t yet voted—and ask them to make a call.

Advancing data science to turn elections

The Cruz campaign uses a powerful app that includes voter data for each individual in a household and auto-generates a script for volunteers canvassing door to door. According to Wired, the script uses data to focus on issues important to the individual opening the door.

The campaign is also using perceived psychological attributes of voters (e.g., extroversion) gathered from surveys to better design persuasion messages. The campaign has an "enhanced voter file" that contains up to 50,000 data points, according to The Washington Post. Bloomberg has a fascinating story about just how narrow and precise the campaign targeting is, including an example of having Cruz support legalized fireworks in Iowa—an exceptionally parochial issue—to sway just 60 likely caucus-goers.

There's also an app that gamifies data collection and awards users points for submitting contact info for their friends. 

Many pundits think the Cruz campaign's technological prowess presents a significant advantage that polling hasn't accounted for. 

Tech is risky: A famous failure

The Mitt Romney presidential campaign attempted a similar coup, creating an app that would integrate voter data and volunteer efforts on Election Day. The intention was to allow a nimble campaign that could pivot to move resources based on the real-time Election Day data.

But on Election Day in 2012, the system crashed. Beset by problems—server connectivity, incorrect logins and poor user interface—the mostly unavailable system made it impossible for many volunteers to do any work at all.

Tech innovation

Love learning about innovative technology? Read IoT scare: Shodan lets anyone spy on devices or 7 CES innovations that will shape the tech industry.

Lisa Dare is a writer for TEKsystems who loves learning about IT from some of the smartest folks in the industry. She frequently blogs about IT careers, talent management and tech culture. Follow her on Twitter to keep up with TEKsavvy blog content.

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