The Big Data Election: How is Data Earning Your 2016 Vote


April 8, 2016

In 2012, President Barack Obama made history, but not in any way you may suspect. His campaign was the first ever to leverage advanced data analytics and social media to persuade voters and target key areas essential to his reelection. His team of technologists developed a data platform code-named Narwhal to assist in that endeavor.

The platform was used to learn the browsing habits of email subscribers and determine what subsets of people were most likely to vote. Each person in the database was given a number to reflect their interest in the incumbent. Once the nation-wide list was segmented into varying degrees of enthusiasm, Obama was able to use email marketing to engage his most energized groups for campaign donations and inspire votes. At the same time, social media was used to further disperse Obama’s message in ways no election had done before. The whole effort was spearheaded and devised by Chief Analytics Officer, David Plouffe, and his team of fifty analysts.

But that was four years ago. What does the big data election look like today?


The 2016 Big Data Election


Ted Cruz, Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump

While there are not many similarities between Ted Cruz, Hilary Clinton, and Donald Trump, each campaign has committed significant resources to implementing technology in their campaign strategies.


The Audacity to Win

To start, candidates have learned in the intervening years the role big data played in the 2012 election, and some are determined not to make the same mistakes as the Romney camp. Ted Cruz even told Fox News producers, “I bought a copy of David Plouffe, Obama’s campaign manager’s book, ‘The Audacity to Win,’ gave it to our senior team [and told them] we are going to nakedly and shamelessly emulate this.”


Cell Phone App

Cruz volunteers going from door-to-door are also equipped with a cell phone app to increase their success rate. As any marketer knows, cold calling is a tough assignment, but door-to-door solicitation can be nearly impossible. The phone app, called uCampaign, helps guide the conversation by supplying the users with questions to ask depending on whether a man or woman answers the door. In addition, it also employs various gamification strategies like experience points and levels up to drive increased participation.


Professional Digital Firm

In 2008 when Hillary Clinton ran against Obama for the Democratic nomination, her campaign was criticized for failing to harness digital analytics to drive campaign efforts. This time around, she has hired a digital firm, The Groundwork, to supplement her digital strategy. The Groundwork is based in San Francisco and funded by Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., the corporation that owns Google.


Late to the Game

Donald Trump did not begin his campaign with a robust digital team. It came later after everyone began to realize his initial success wasn’t a fluke. Once consistently high poll numbers began to solidify in October, Trump recruited two Republican National Committee data strategists, Matt Braynard and Witold Chrabaszcz, with assistance from the political data organization L2. From there, he made a “sizable purchase of data” from L2, according to Bruce Willsie, the firm’s president. The data consisted of registered voters and nonregistered adults likely to be open to Donald Trump’s platform. The Trump campaign and L2 continue to work together to harness, refine, and utilize this data.


Social Media and Bernie Sanders



Though still in its fledgling state back in 2008, social media has come of age since then, and it’s no surprise that the social media accounts of our remaining candidates have attracted a huge turnout of followers. Each of their millions of followers receives campaign posts every day, and they can share those posts with their own community of friends and families. The potential for reaching a like-minded audience is immense.

Below are the Facebook followers of each candidate’s official page:

  • Donald Trump: 6,872,002
  • Ted Cruz: 2,106,416
  • Hilary Clinton: 3,107,714
  • Bernie Sanders: 3,669,821
  • John Kasich: 282,134


and the (rounded) twitter followers as well:


  • Donald Trump: 7,400,000
  • Ted Cruz: 1,010,000
  • Hilary Clinton: 5,870,000
  • Bernie Sanders: 1,870,000
  • John Kasich: 269,000


Bernie Sanders

Dave Auerbach, software engineer in New York, wrote an opinion piece for Slate describing, among other things, the role social media has played in Sanders’ presidential hopes. He writes,


“To Clinton and to many others, Sanders certainly didn’t seem like a threat even a few months ago, and 10 years ago, he wouldn’t have been. Prior to a generation of voters that grew up with the Internet, there was nowhere near as much room to take advantage of a gap in establishment strategy as there is this year…Online social networking has allowed Sanders supporters to reinforce one another’s beliefs, so that the general shutout of Sanders by the mainstream media—and even a good deal of the leftist media—allowed Sanders to survive where he would have suffocated even in 2008. The Internet made it much, much easier for Sanders supporters to organize, with a core of young voters far more native to the Web than even Obama’s base eight years ago.”


It is this climate of big data, social media, and analytics that has allowed Sanders’ campaign to exist at all, and because Sanders and his supporters continue to use these tools, he is putting up a surprising fight against the presumptive nominee, despite a significant lack of traditional media coverage.


Looking Forward to 2020

If 2012 put big data on the map for presidential elections, 2016 is the election where these strategies become the standard operating procedure. Every candidate is utilizing these tools in one capacity or another, and in the case of the Cruz Campaign, actively employing the same strategies as the 2012 Obama campaign.

In 2020, it’s easy to assume that trends will simply continue and once again these strategies will become more and more commonplace in political movements, but look at how much has changed in technology in four years. Look how much more prevalent social media is in all of our lives. Not only will these trends continue, but there will be another four years in browsing history to analyze, interactions with the 2016 election to assess, and new political niches to capitalize on. Big data will be bigger and the insight it provides will be sharper and more accessible to candidates. 2020 could be the year big data and digital campaigning all but replaces traditional strategies like signs, television ads, and t-shirts.

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