Like many of you, I followed the US Presidential election closely over the past few months. Notwithstanding the guilt associated with believing that the American politics is more interesting than the Canadian variety, I found myself constantly searching for the latest scrap of news, and polling data!

While the talking-heads on CNN and columnists in the Times and WSJ scrutinized the polls, most of their commentary centered on esoteric questions about sampling methods, ‘likely voter’ screens and the composition of the electorate. ‘Will the number of self-identified Democrats outnumber Republicans to the same extent as in 2008 (when the Democrats had a 7-point turnout advantage),’ or ‘would it revert to something closer in line with the recent historical average (a 3.5 percentage point gap)?’ they routinely asked.

And when poll after poll showed Obama with a small but persistent lead in the important states, the Republicans cried foul. It’s not unusual for losing campaigns to complain that polls do not reflect the “reality on the ground.” But they certainly weren’t alone…

This time around, many politicos expected Republicans to be more enthusiastic about voting than Democrats; and the release of a few large-scale research studies suggesting that slightly more Americans now identified themselves as Republicans than Democrats only bolstered that view.

On election day, the turnout percentages proved, however, to be virtually the same as they were in 2008 — a 6 point Democratic margin. (And Romney won ‘Independent’ voters by a clear margin, which is why the popular vote was as close as it was). Although voter turnout was down significantly overall, the Democrats had maintained their previous edge—much to the surprise of Republicans and some media ‘experts’.

Now, how did they do that? And why should you care?

The Democrats used an aggressive and sophisticated approach to targeting voters on an individual level. This approach has been building steam in the political arena for some time. In 2004, the Bush campaign pioneered the concept of ‘micro-targeting’ voters. They identified small groups of voters, by combining volumes of voting and consumer data, and used some unorthodox polling techniques to figure out what messages would convince them to cast a ballot for their candidate. On Election Day, their opponent reached or exceeded their turnout targets, and thought they were on their way to victory. But the Bush “ground game” simply blew those targets away.

In 2008, the Obama campaign adopted a similar approach and improved on those methods. But, in 2012, they took it to another level: they used the 4-year head start to build a data driven targeting and communications machine that gave them a distinct advantage over the Romney campaign, that quite simply didn’t have the time to match their efforts. When many potential Romney voters stayed home, the Obama campaign’s success is identifying and communicating with their supporters definitely put them over the top.

More information on these techniques can be found in two recent pieces by Michael Scherer and Jennifer Martinez. When reading these articles, bear, however, in mind that the information the campaign was willing to share probably only scratches the surface of what they were actually able to do. No one wants to give away too many trade secrets…

The lesson for communicators is clear. The very nature of communications is changing rapidly. The migration from mass media messages to a more direct and personal form of communication is accelerating, enabled by technology and the massive volume of information available about us as individuals, using metrics derived from both our online and offline behaviour.

At the end of one the articles referenced above, a campaign official is quoted as saying: “In the 21st century, the candidate with [the] best data, merged with the best messages dictated by that data, wins.”

At Thinkwell, we agree… But this rule doesn’t just apply to the political realm.

Not every organization has the financial resources to do what the Obama campaign did. But every organization can start to get serious about thinking about their target market in a more sophisticated, ‘scientific’ way.

If you don’t have a mechanism (or process in place) to test and refine your messages on a regular basis, you are placing your organization at a distinct – and unnecessary – disadvantage.

That’s the take-away…



16 Nov 2012