Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, announced in an AP interview last month that he once again plans to buck traditional political wisdom by running a campaign based more on his rallies and personal appeal than data, which he calls overrated. However, even if his campaign has been less data-driven than those of his one-time rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz (the latter of whom was especially obsessed with personalized data), Trump did lay the groundwork early on for a quiet data operation, including an agreement with data firm L2 to analyze the data collected at his rallies and campaign stops.
Big Data, of course, failed to predict Trump’s monumental rise. Nate Silver, the founder of FiveThirtyEight.com who famously predicted the election outcome in 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 elections and all 50 in 2012, has a great breakdown on why FiveThirtyEight.com didn’t see Trump coming. The main takeaway is that data journalists tended to rely on educated guesses rather than statistical models when considering Trump’s candidacy.
Despite its inability to accurately predict every outcome, data remains crucially important to today’s political machinery. Big data firms claim they can generate as many as 1,500 data points on voters collected from public records, cookies that track web browsing, and voter registration databases. By putting all of this data together, they can create a personalized profile of every voter and target messages based on what each one cares about. This was especially important in Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection, where this data was used to model “persuadability” in order to find the voters most susceptible to Obama’s message. This year, Hillary Clinton’s campaign is reported to have spent almost $500,000 on Timshel, a startup data operation backed by Google co-founder Eric Schmidt. The company created a tool called the Groundwork that organizes the massive amounts of data collected from donor tracking systems, marketing analytics databases, and mass e-mail programs. And it’s money well spent, as last week she received the number of delegates required to clinch the Democratic nomination, though Bernie Sanders will reportedly remain in the race until D.C.’s primary tomorrow.
This article is the second part of an ongoing series on data and the presidential race. Read part one here.