Cross-posted on techPresident
A week or two ago, I happened to catch the C-Span broadcast of a fascinating discussion at Harvard’s Kennedy School — PBS’s Gwen Ifill moderated a panel including David Axelrod and David Plouffe from the Obama campaign and Richard Davis and Bill McInturff from McCain’s operation. The entire discussion is brain-food for any political junkie, but one segment particularly jumped out at me: David Plouffe gave an extended description of how the Obama campaign used volunteer-produced data to create computer-generated models of states — down to segments of a media market — to determine how the campaign was doing at any given moment.
And it wasn’t an idle mental exercise, since they used these simulations to make essentially overnight changes in how and where to concentrate resources, including candidate and surrogate visits. On the video, the critical bit starts right around minute 57, in answer to a question from a Kennedy School grad student about how modern campaigns use data; a transcript is below.
Obviously a campaign’s about message delivery at the candidate level, but at the campaign level, it is about numbers. And going back to Iowa, even our own survey data showed a different race than our field data did. And it was very instructive to us…
…In our own campaign, polling was just one way we viewed how we were doing in a state in the general election. We had a lot of voter identification work. We had a lot of field data. So we’d put all that together and model out the election in those states every week. So we’d say, okay, if the election were held this week based on all our data, put it all in a blender, where are we? And obviously, with technology today, we could measure this very carefully. We don’t have to wait for a state to report in how they did that night; we can look at it, down to the volunteer level, because we trusted our volunteers. We gave them the voter file, we said here are the people on your block, you go talk to ’em, you record the result of the conversation. We in Chicago could look at that…
…It makes you enormously agile. You’ve got real-time data, and that makes you make scheduling decisions and resource-allocation decisions and where to send surrogates and you’re adjusting those by the end multiple times a day. Not just down to the media market, but down to chunks of voters in those media markets. We’re not doing as well as we need to here, so we’ve got to throw a lot of our resources in there. These guys are making a surge in a media market, we’ve got to go try and correct that.
Talk about getting rid of the guesswork! But note that everything depends on the quality of the data (Garbage In, Garbage Out), and it’s no surprise that the Obamans put serious resources into training volunteers and their organizers. Grassroots communications isn’t just outreach — do it right, and it helps keep you from stabbing wildly in the dark. Welcome to modern machine politics.