Monday, April 14, 2014

After John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 election, the Democratic Party began asking serious questions of itself. The Kerry-Edwards campaign had accepted $74.6 million of taxpayer’s money, and still attracted federal opprobrium for overspending. They had pushed campaign volunteers to the limit. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam vet, had embarrassed the Bush camp over a slew of issues, including the President’s less than exemplary military service record. And yet the Republicans swept to a second successive victory, securing another four years in the White House.

Fast forward to 2008, and Barack Hussein Obama winning the Presidential election. Was he a likelier candidate than Kerry? Or any more of a divisive figure than Bush? In both cases the answer is ‘no.’ So what changed in those four years? What did the Democratic Party start doing differently?

In a word: data. Before Obama, the Democrats were not a data driven party. There was no common national database to help co-ordinate the efforts of political campaign managers across the Unites States. There was no election tech infrastructure to help staff make the most of time spent canvassing voters.

In 2008, the Democrats launched an all-new, fully integrated election strategy. The Obama internet campaign fed the Obama SMS campaign, which complemented the Obama cable TV campaign (the latter saw 1,710 ads aired, compared with zero by the Republicans).

Every step of the process was carefully designed to allow analysis of voters’  habits, preferences, dislikes - crucial data that ultimately gave the Democrats an intimate understanding of what makes the electorate tick (or rather, swing). Though Republicans and old school Democrats may have viewed these techniques as inconvenient and even disruptive, they allowed a presidential candidate to engage with voters the way local campaigns do: as a collection of real people, each approachable on their own terms.

The significance of this application of minutely detailed analysis should not be underestimated. It affords each voter a degree of respect heretofore unheard of in national elections. Instead of looking at the country as large, unwieldy, mostly-static blocks of red and blue, it allows politicians to talk to voters on their own terms, and in their own language. Political campaign tools are now so sophisticated, the public has a voice in the democratic process that goes way beyond a mark on a ballot paper every four years.

Before 2008, 126 millions Americans were reduced en masse to a series of numbers. After Obama, they were reduced individually to a series of numbers. That’s a huge step. Persuasion phase politics will never be the same again.