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Number crunchers, ascendant: how data was the real winner in Obama's reelection

Number crunchers, ascendant: how data was the real winner in Obama's reelection

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2012 US election ballot Obama Romney (STOCK)
2012 US election ballot Obama Romney (STOCK)

Less than 24 hours after President Barack Obama secured another four years in office, Time is offering up an exclusive peek at how his campaign operation managed to thwart Mitt Romney's White House aspirations. Put simply, the key ingredient was data. During Obama's initial 2008 bid for office, his team had already embraced technology in a greater capacity than any before it, assembling massive email lists and other targeted initiatives that earned Obama historic fundraising tallies. But for 2012, campaign manager Jim Messina wanted to take things even further.

Obama's campaign has always favored hard data over gut instinct

To get there, his staff needed to link what had previously been disjointed databases of voter information (collected by volunteers, pollsters, and other campaign workers) into a single, comprehensive pool unrivaled in detail and scope. Whereas most voter logs used by campaigns often list only names and telephone numbers, Obama's advanced tool dove into specifics like age, race, district, and voting history: it allowed field workers to rank voters intelligently and not waste time chasing unlikely votes.

There was deep analysis behind the email flood

Naturally the same data crunching was applied to the campaign's seemingly never-ending email blasts. Staffers used analysis and modeling to decide whether the next plea for money should come from Joe Biden or Michelle Obama, for instance. The same held true when it came time to trot out celebrities on Obama's behalf: the campaign concluded that George Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker would entice supporters to donate more in hopes of landing a dinner with the president and his Hollywood friends. And that surprise Reddit appearance? It was as carefully orchestrated as any other campaign tactic.

But even more importantly, the Obama team's luxurious dataset allowed them to simulate the general election thousands of times each day, monitoring all-important swing states for shifts in momentum. As an example of that depth, the campaign collected polling data for over 29,000 people in Ohio in a single month — far exceeding the sample size news publications typically seek for their own polls. It was here they learned Obama's lacking performance in the first presidential debate hadn't been as detrimental as pundits claimed. As others panicked, the campaign held steady and mapped out final advertising and get-out-the-vote strategies that would ultimately prevent Romney from becoming the 45th US president.

Fivethirtyeight was a data lover's dream

But the Obama campaign wasn't alone in its obsessive hunger for statistics, percentages, and other figures. In the weeks leading up to Election Day, Nate Silver's fivethirtyeight blog became an essential destination for politico diehards. Silver's supremely-detailed analysis of polling data led him to predict (perhaps flawlessly, pending the final outcome in Florida) a race many dubbed too close to call as voters took to the polls. "Data is vindicated," tweeted the Poynter Institute in reaction to Silver's incredible accuracy. Barack Obama has yet to be sworn in for a second term, but the question has already become whether data can again prevail so decidedly in 2016.