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Big Data in Politics: An Overview

Big data has popped up seemingly everywhere, so it should probably come as no surprise that it now plays a major role in politics. The impact of big data analytics goes beyond how politicians conduct their jobs and more heavily delves into the ways politicians get elected in the first place. While it has taken a while for most of the political world to buy into the effectiveness of big data, now that most are on board, data is often considered the lifeblood of any campaign. If you have a lot of it and know how to use it better than your opponent, chances are you’re going to pull out a victory. As we rush toward another presidential election, big data will prove to be more important than ever before. It may even be one of the key factors in determining who ultimately sits in the Oval Office. Needless to say, understanding big data means understanding how politics work nowadays.

That’s not to say information hasn’t been important to political campaigns before. Volunteers knocking door to door weren’t just doing it for their health. There was vital data to collect and a broader picture to paint about who supported which candidate and how likely they were to vote come election day. Phone calls were always a routine part of any worthwhile campaign (even if voters could get fed up with them). But big data is a different animal altogether. It isn’t just normal sets of data being analyzed, it’s tons of it, the volume of which is at times difficult to grasp.

While collecting as much data as possible about voters seems like a no-brainer, the use of new technology in this manner took a while to catch on with political experts. A turning point in attitudes can likely be traced back to 2008 when a relatively young U.S. senator by the name of Barack Obama upset party frontrunner Hillary Clinton to become the Democratic Party’s nominee for President of the United States. Through the use of advanced analytic techniques and big data strategies, the Obama campaign was able to galvanize supporters. As as we now know, this method would be used to propel then Senator Obama to the office of the Presidency itself. Suddenly, big data was seen as a big deal, something that could be used for more than just improved business operations. Data science had officially entered the political realm, and the possibilities were tantalizing.

Fast forward four years to President Obama’s reelection campaign, and big data efforts were put into overdrive. Despite an admittedly struggling economy, Pres. Obama won reelection by a fairly comfortable margin. As is the case for any campaign, a multitude of factors played into the successful reelection, but big data has been named as one of the key ingredients to the 2012 victory. The Obama campaign’s use of big data allowed them to reach voters all across the country, leading to an impressive turnout. Many experts credit the 2012 campaign with setting the standard for how to use big data in politics.

That’s not to say Pres. Obama’s opponent in 2012 — former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney — didn’t use big data either. However, the Romney campaign’s use of analytics lagged far behind the Obama campaign’s, in part because Democrats had a head start in using it from back in 2008. Republicans were simply too far behind to make up enough ground to be competitive in this area. It takes time and money to build up the big data infrastructure needed to properly collect, sort, and analyze vast amounts of data from various sources. Every converged infrastructure tool, every flash storage array, and every security protocol requires plenty of attention to get right. Republicans were on the right track, but by the time November 2012 rolled around, it was too little too late for them. Big data had proven decisive and influential.

Let’s move ahead to the 2016 political landscape. As of this writing, the presidential campaign is in full swing. If anything, it’s more chaotic than it’s ever been with both major parties still without a presumed nominee. Learning from the successes of the past two presidential election cycles, all the campaigns have embraced big data analytics to some degree. As of the end of January 2016, more than $3.5 million had been spent by all the current and former candidates (22 in all) on big data solution providers, according to FEC reports. In previous campaigns, that money likely would have gone to many other places — mailers, yard signs, television ads, and more. Now, campaigns realize the impact of big data and how advantageous it can be, especially in a close political battle. As we get closer to November, it’s more than likely the amount of money spent on big data solutions will only increase.

By now, it’s clear that politicians want to use big data, but the question remains over how best to use it. No single formula guarantees success. Even predicting outcomes becomes an endeavor into the unknowable. Nate Silver became famous in part for his successful call of the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election. His call of the UK election wasn’t so accurate. So even among experts, there is no surefire way to read data. With every campaign, both national and local, relying on big data in at least some form, getting to the heart of correct big data usage is perhaps the most crucial issue of all.

Big data use in politics all begins with collecting it, and there are various ways to do just that. Information about possible voters was always limited to only the barest data before, things like their name, address, age, and voting history. That’s all, of course, still available, but data of other types can now be combined from other sources. These sources include consumer data, contribution data, issue preferences, and even information from the most recent census. Putting all of these data types together is one of the biggest challenges facing political campaigns right now. Known as data unification, it brings data sources together into one clear picture, providing an accurate portrayal of an individual voter.

But that’s just scratching the surface. The real goldmine is the data campaigns can collect from social media. Through social listening and advanced analytics, campaigns can get a more detailed view of each voter than was ever possible before. Considering how many people actually use social media (more than 2 billion worldwide), it seems like as good of a source as any to get information about people. In this sense, political campaigns are acting more like normal businesses than ever before, only instead of figuring out how to get customers to buy their product, campaigns are trying to get voters to the voting booth.

Using all of these different data sources serves in the purpose of reaching two goals: microtargeting individual voters and getting enough data so that effective analysis can be performed. Think about the advantages brought by truly understanding what drives individual people to make decisions. Not only can campaigns reach out to voters with messages addressing the very issues they are most passionate about, but the way the message is crafted and delivered can be changed for maximum impact. These personalized communications have proven to be a great method for driving up turnout and keeping people informed. It also helps campaigns tailor their messages to reach more people and influence those who may be sitting on the fence. For example, if data shows a prospective voter is an avid gun owner, pushing a stricter gun control message on their Facebook page could quickly prove counter productive.

Big data can be used for much more than simply getting to know who the potential voters are and how to create a useful campaign message. Resource allocation remains a significant challenge in the political world, and big data can help campaigns figure out where best to spend money, when to spend it, and how to most effectively utilize volunteer work. As high tech as the world is now, campaigns still require plenty of leg work to get the job done. With big data, campaigns can send volunteers into areas where they will have more of an impact. Advertising dollars can be spent on media channels that will get the best responses. Campaigns can even use big data to determine where to send candidates for rallies and fundraisers.

All of these factors lead up to the eagerly anticipated results on election day. While we only have a small sample to look at, it’s likely that the campaign that ends up winning will be the campaign that used big data in the most effective manner. With big data and big data-related tools like Apache Pig now commonplace, political campaigns have a lot of options before them in how to reach voters and get their own messages out. We’re only in the beginning stages of big data use in politics. What it will all look like a decade or two from now is still up in the air. We may not be far from campaigns of a much different sort, and all of them will revolve around big data.