In the 2012 election, big data-driven analysis and campaigns were the big winners

Data science played a decisive role in the 2012 election, from the campaigns to the coverage

On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama was elected to a second term in office. In a world of technology and political punditry, the big winner is Nate Silver, the New York Times blogger at Five Thirty Eight. (Break out your dictionaries: a psephologist is a national figure.)

After he correctly called all 50 states, Silver is being celebrated as the “king of the quants” by CNET and the “nerdy Chuck Norris” by Wired. The combined success of statistical models from Silver, TPM PollTrackerHuffPost Pollster, RealClearPolitics Average, and the Princeton Election Consortium all make traditional “horse race journalism” that uses insider information from the campaign trail to explain what’s really going on look a bit, well, antiquated. With the rise of political data science, the Guardian even went so far as to say that big data may sound the death knell for punditry.

This election season should serve, in general, as a wake-up call for data-illiterate journalists. It was certainly a triumph of logic over punditry. At this point, it’s fair to “predict” that Silver’s reputation and the role of data analysis will continue to endure, long after 2012.

XKCD on math

“As of this writing, the only thing that’s ‘razor-thin’ or ‘too close to call’ is the gap between the consensus poll forecast and the result” — Randall Munroe

The data campaign

The other big tech story to emerge from the electoral fray, however, is the how the campaigns themselves used technology. What social media was to 2008, data-driven campaigning was in 2012. In the wake of this election, people who understand math, programming and data science will be in even higher demand as a strategic advantage in campaigns, from getting out the vote to targeting and persuading voters.

For political scientists and campaign staff, the story of the quants and data crunchers who helped President Obama win will be pored over and analyzed for years to come. For those wondering how the first big data election played out, Sarah Lai Stirland’s analysis of how Obama’s digital infrastructure helped him win re-election is a must-read, as is Nick Judd’s breakdown of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s digital campaign. The Obama campaign found voters in battleground states that their opponents apparently didn’t know existed. The exit polls suggest that finding and turning out the winning coalition of young people, minorities and women was critical — and data-driven campaigning clearly played a role.

For added insight on the role of data in this campaign, watch O’Reilly Media’s special online conference on big data and elections, from earlier this year. (It’s still quite relevant.) The archive is embedded below:

For more resources and analysis of the growing role of big data in elections and politics, read on.

If you’re new to the topic, this list of videos and articles should be useful.

In October, I joined other journalists and digital media experts to discuss Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” for a show on “data mining the U.S. Election.”

The PBS News Hour collaborated with Frontline to produce a feature on this year’s digital campaigns, including an interactive on targeting the electorate.

For a look back at some of the best news and commentary on big data and politics, read the following links:

Patrick Ruffini: “Goodbye, polling. Hello, Big Data.

Tech President: “Election 2012: It’s Not Facebook. It’s The Data, Stupid.

Slate: “Project Dreamcatcher: How cutting-edge text analytics can help the Obama campaign determine voters’ hopes and fears.

Guardian: “Obama, Facebook and the power of friendship: the 2012 data election

Campaigns & Elections: “Big Data Is A Big Factor in 2012.”

Guardian: “Obama campaign leaves Mitt Romney trailing as focus shifts to November

Politico: “Obama’s Data Advantage

Guardian: “Mitt Romney’s campaign closing gap on Obama in digital election race

Tech President: “Zac Moffatt Talks Digital Strategy

New York Times: “Campaigns Mine Personal Lives to Get Out Vote

Slate: “Are You Going To Vote? Do You Promise?

Slate: “Obama does it better.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/LewisShepherd Lewis Shepherd

    Good summary and catalog, very helpful. One observation I have though: Hailing Nate Silver is like saying that Dick Clark in his heyday on Bandstand was the King of Rock ‘n Roll. Chuck Berry, Elvis, and the Beatles (who actually created the music) were the more interesting figures, while Clark was an aggregator. A smart, canny aggregator, but one should note what one is lionizing. I find far more interesting the improvements among actual pollsters (e.g. PPP) through better sociological work, and among campaign quants themselves for their analytic mining and hypothesis-testing. That’s actual data science. 538 is writing a library index card, the others are writing the books.

  • http://twitter.com/PeterQuirk PeterQuirk

    All of this is completely unnecessary in modern young nations with compulsory voting. A side benefit is that you can forecast from census data how many ballot papers you’ll need, how many polling stations, where to place the polling stations, etc. Instead of spending money on get-out-the-vote or voter suppression activities, parties have to focus on communicating their policies.