In the presidential election of 2008 Barack Obama already used data to boost his campaign, but in 2012 it became the most important and effective tool to reach the right voters. The availability of huge piles of data on voters’ behavior is fundamentally reshaping politics and it tends to work in favor of those in power.
“When volunteers knocked on doors in 2008, four out of ten people they met backed Obama. In 2012 the ratio was nine out of ten” says Dan Wagner, who led Obama’s data-science team during his second campaign. “Most of what we did in 2012 is now a commodity”.
Tom Pitfield, who headed the digital campaign of Canada’s recently elected prime minister Justin Trudeau, explains how their restricted budget made them decide to concentrate on social media: “We would create an ad, see how people reacted to it on Facebook, tweak the content and test it again. On some days we would produce more than 50 different ads”. This way they were able to send very targeted messages to potential voters and outsmart their competitors. In Obama’s second campaign they even tested different subject lines of fundraising emails like: “I will be outspent” raised $2.6 million, and “Do this for Michelle” raised $700,000.
In the run-up of the presidential election of this year all the candidates’ campaigns are based on data. Republican candidate Ted Cruz targeted potential supporters with highly tailored ads on Facebook, and used algorithms to mark voters as “stoic traditionalists”, “temperamental conservatives” or “true believers”, so volunteers could personalize their approach. Both the republicans and the democrats now have huge databases with information ranging from simple demographics, to voting history to the likeliness of owning a SUV. The Democrats pioneered these kinds of databases in 2006 with a database called Catalist, covering more than 240 million people.
Our virtual lives are blending increasingly with the physical reality, but the difference is that bodies are local entities while online presence is not tied to any physical space, it’s everywhere simultaneously. The decentralized nature of the Internet could help to achieve a true democracy, but the centralized collection of data it produces can push it in the opposite direction.