Free Enterprise Staff  | October 31, 2014

In Data Politicians Trust

In an era when data is being used to improve crop yields and prevent Ebola outbreaks, it should not come as a surprise that politicians are increasingly relying on it to help them win elections.

Even though big data has become a favorite buzz term among the Technorati in recent years, it still maintains an aura of mystery. At its core, big data simply refers to the burgeoning field of data science and analytics, whose aim is to collect and subsequently analyze a huge amount of relevant information in the hopes of gaining critical insights into how people behave.

Businesses like Google and Amazon have commanded a lot of attention for their reliance on big data, which they contend will enable them to better interpret and predict customer behavior, giving them a competitive advantage in a crowded business landscape. Yet political organizations have also bet big on big data, with politicians increasingly relying on data as they face tight election battles across the United States.

While still in its relative infancy, big data as it relates to politics isn’t exactly a new concept. Voter targeting has long been a part of campaigns, though it’s undoubtedly become more nuanced and sophisticated over the past decade. Perhaps the most powerful example of data’s potential impact on elections happened six years ago, when President Obama’s campaign effectively harnessed vast troves of voter and demographic data to drum up support for his bid for the White House. Drawing on the lessons they learned from ’08, Obama and his team were able to repeat their success in 2012, when their efforts helped spur likely voters to the polls in droves, giving the president a comfortable victory against his challenger, Mitt Romney.

With the midterm elections nearly upon us, candidates have been looking for any edge they can find amid tightly contested congressional races from Georgia to California. This has resulted in a barrage of targeted advertising and canvassing efforts. It has also been a boon for organizations that collec and interpret demographic data, as campaigns are banking on their expertise to drive voter turnout and turn the electoral tide in their favor.

Among the businesses in this space is Aristotle. Based in Washington, D.C., Aristotle works with a variety of services to candidates and political organizations on both sides of the aisle, providing them with actionable insights into how everyday Americans behave, as well as which groups are more likely to be receptive to their messaging. Such companies also help campaigns reach voters who remain undecided about whom they want to support, CEO John Aristotle Phillips said in an interview.

“The idea is to identify those who are likely to support you, and then get them to the polls,” Phillips told C-SPAN. “And then those who are undecided, convince them that you’re the candidate or the cause worth supporting and get them to polls—and leave everybody else alone. It’s really about looking for the people who are going to support you and getting them to the polls on Election Day.”

Getting your supporters to head out to the polls is particularly important during midterm election cycles, when voter turnout has historically been lower than presidential election years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the national voting rate during 2012’s presidential election was just under 62%; in 2010’s congressional election, it was only 45.5%.

Politicians and PACs—political action committees like Americans for Prosperity that support specific candidates and causes—are acutely aware of this disparity, and they’re throwing a lot of weight into data analytics this year as they work to outmaneuver their rivals. “Campaigns are like a small business in many ways,” Phillips said during the interview. “You’ve got an uncertain cash flow, and you need to know who your customers are. Businesses who don’t know who their customers are—they don’t stay in business very long.”

Aristotle and similar kinds of companies facilitate this process by collecting a huge amount of basic voter information. They track publicly available data including voters’ names, personal addresses, party affiliations, and voting histories, meaning whether a particular person has voted in past election cycles. These kinds of data points can then be cross-referenced against recent polling information to glean actionable insights—whether it’s worth targeting one type of voter over another, for example. According to Phillips, this sort of information provides candidates with a powerful, invaluable tool.

“It’s important because you don’t have unlimited resources, the most important of which is time—not necessarily money,” he said during the interview. “You don’t have enough time to convince everybody to your cause, and some people you’re never going to convince anyway. It’s very important that you don’t spend time persuading people who are not going to support you, or persuading those who are already going to support you. You just want to get those people to the polls.”

With the balance of electoral power at stake, politicians and political groups are pouring resources into data analysis this election cycle. This year ranks as the most expensive midterm election ever, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, with an estimated $3.67 billion spent supporting candidates and political causes. Of course, data does not guarantee a particular candidate’s success, but as demonstrated by President Obama and scores of other candidates before him, it can provide a crucially important edge during an election cycle.

So if a candidate’s canvassers have knocked on your door, or if you’ve received countless e-mails and phone calls urging you to vote, try not to be annoyed. You might even consider being flattered—if politicians are going out of their way to contact you, then it most likely means you’re an important voter.