Polling Alone

The most exciting point of Panos Toullis’s work involved a late night of caffeine-powered data-hacking, when Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt sauntered into the room, nudged him on the shoulder and said something to the effect of, “You know, you guys are doing something new and innovative and something that people will be repeating over and over again from now on.” To Toullis, a Ph.D. student in Harvard’s statistics department, this was like an aspiring pianist meeting Mozart. He recounted to the HPR, “The company is Google, and this dude sees so many technologies and integrations and he’s saying that this was something innovative! Surprising, right?”

The innovation to which Toullis was referring is the new world of political analytics that emerged out of Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, known as Obama for America or OFA. OFA, initially designed for the 2008 race, was widely regarded as revolutionary when it started using data in earnest in 2012. Having hired Facebook and Google veterans, high-energy particle physicists, and executives from various up-and-coming companies in the Bay Area, OFA’s team was 10 times the size of Mitt Romney’s Republican equivalent. From conducting experiments to optimizing fundraising email wordology, the analytics team completely changed senior political operatives’ approaches to campaigning. It was the first to spend over $100 million on online advertising; it was also the first campaign to simulate database failures to practice handling end-of-the-world level disasters. It was, after all, the year 2012.

As 2016 approaches, the focus on data and analytics will continue to grow. Civis Analytics and BlueLabs, both founded by members of OFA’s analytics team, have expanded from the campaign world into the private sector as data consulting firms for progressive non-profit organizations and political campaigns. Hillary Clinton has already hired a key subset of Obama’s top digital and analytics personnel. And on the Republican side, the Koch brothers have invested $50 million into i360, a Republican equivalent to Civis and BlueLabs. Analytics, it seems, is here to stay.

It looks like the politicians will wage their battles with armies of data for the years to come. As campaigns gather more information about individual voters and continue to target at finer granularities, what is the ultimate affect of analytics on our democracy?

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polling alone