How Did Obama Use Data To Win The 2012 Election?

Interview With Deputy Chief Analytics Officer for Obama '12


We were lucky enough to talk to Andrew Claster, Deputy Chief Analytics Officer for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign ahead of his presentation at the Big Data Innovation Summit in Boston, September 12 & 13 2013.

Andrew Claster, Deputy Chief Analytics Officer for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, helped create and lead the largest, most innovative and most successful political analytics operation ever developed. Andrew previously developed microtargeting and communications strategies as Vice President at Penn, Schoen & Berland for clients including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ehud Barak, Leonel Fernandez, Verizon, Alcatel, Microsoft, BP, KPMG, TXU and the Washington Nationals baseball team. Andrew completed his undergraduate studies in political science at Yale University and his graduate training in economics at the London School of Economics.

What was the biggest challenge for the data team during the Obama re-election campaign?

It is difficult to identify just one. Here are some of the most important:

- Data Integration: We have several major database platforms – the national voter file, our proprietary email list, campaign donation history, volunteer list, field contact history, etc. How do we integrate these and use a unified dataset to inform campaign decisions?

- Online/Offline: How do we encourage online activists to take action online and vice-versa? How do we facilitate and measure this activity?

- Models: How do we develop and validate our models about what the electorate is going to look like in November 2012?

- Communications: Our opponents and the press are continually discussing areas in which they say we are falling short. When is it in our interest to push back, when is it in our interest to let them believe their own spin, and what information are we willing to share if we do push back?

- Cost: How do we evaluate everything we do in terms of cost per vote, cost per volunteer hour or cost per staff hour?

- Prioritization: We don’t have enough resources to test everything, model everything and do everything. How do we efficiently allocate human and financial resources?

- Internal Communication, Sales and Marketing: How do we support every department within the campaign (communications, field, digital, finance, scheduling, advertising)? How do we demonstrate value? How do we build relationships? How do we ensure that data and analytics are used to inform decision-making across the campaign?

- Hiring and Training: Where and how do we recruit more than 50 highly qualified analysts, statistical modelers and engineers who are committed to re-electing Barack Obama and willing to move to Chicago for a job that ends on Election Day 2012, requires that they work more than 80 hours a week for months with no vacation in a crowded room with no windows (nicknamed ‘The Cave’), and pays less with fewer benefits than they would earn doing a similar job in the private sector?

Many working within political statistics and analytics say that the incumbent candidate always has a significant advantage with their data effectiveness, do you think this is the case?

The incumbent has many advantages including the following:

- Incumbent has data, infrastructure and experience from the previous campaign

- Incumbent is known in advance – no primary – and can start planning and implementing general election strategy earlier

- Incumbent is known to voters – there is less uncertainty regarding underlying data and models

However, the incumbent may also have certain disadvantages:

- Strategy is more likely to be known to the other side because it is likely to be similar to the previous campaign

- With a similar strategy and many of the same strategists and vested interests as the previous campaign, it could be harder to innovate

On balance, the incumbent has an opportunity to put herself or himself in a superior position regarding data, analytics and technology. However, it is not necessarily the case that s/he will do so – the incumbent must have the will and the ability to develop and invest in this potential advantage.

When there is no incumbent and there is a competitive primary, it is the role of the national party and other affiliated groups to invest in and develop this data, analytics and technology infrastructure.

How much effect do you think data had on the election result?

The most important determinants of the election result were:

- Having a candidate with a record of accomplishment and policy positions that are consistent with the preferences of the majority of the electorate

- Building a national organization of supporters, volunteers and donors to register likely supporters to vote, persuade likely voters to support our candidate, turn out likely supporters and protect the ballot to ensure their vote is counted.

Data, technology and analytics made us more effective and more efficient with every one of these steps. They helped us target the right people with the right message delivered in the right medium at the right time.

We conducted several tests to measure the impact of our work on the election result, but we will not be sharing those results publicly.

As an example however, I can point out that there were times during the campaign when the press and our opponent claimed that states such as Michigan and Minnesota were highly competitive, that we were losing in Ohio, Iowa, Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin, and that Florida was firmly in our opponent’s camp. We had internal data (and there was plenty of public data, for those who are able to analyze it properly) demonstrating that these statements were inaccurate. If we didn’t have accurate internal data, our campaign might have made multi-million dollar mistakes that could have cost us several key states and the election.

Given the reaction of the public to the NSA and PRISM data gathering techniques, what kind of effect is this likely to have on the wider data gathering activities of others working within the data science community?

Consumers are becoming more aware of what data is available and to whom. It is increasingly important for those of us in the data science community to help educate consumers about what information is available, when and how they can opt out of sharing their information and how their information is being used.

Do you think that after the success of the data teams in the previous two elections that it is no longer an advantage, but a necessity for a successful campaign?

Campaigns have always used data to make decisions, but new techniques and technology have made more data accessible and allowed it to be used in innovative ways.

Campaigns that do not invest in data, technology or analytics are missing a huge opportunity that can help them make more intelligent decisions. Furthermore, their supporters, volunteers and donors want to know that the campaign is using their contributions of time and money as efficiently and effectively as possible, and that the campaign is making smart strategic decisions using the latest techniques.

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