The 2012 Obama Campaign, the Technological Sublime, and the Limits of Big Data

It is election season, and the stories of technological innovations being game changers are upon us. Many of these accounts are articulating the technological sublime around the Obama campaign’s data practices.  This sublime response is marked by the wonder, and dread, towards the technological dazzle that seemingly has the power to reinvigorate the incumbent’s supporter base.

For example, a series of recent stories have come out about the campaign’s use of data in the attempt to, as TechPresident describes, “get back to the ‘we'”. How does the campaign get back the ‘we’? Evidently, by crafting ever more personalized persuasive communications on the basis of the extensive online and offline information the campaign has on every member of the electorate:

“But the real challenge will be — and what many of the campaign’s data tools, which Rospars and Goff seemed reluctant to discuss, are built to help the campaign to do — to return to that 2008 level of enthusiasm, where the campaign has grassroots volunteers going door-to-door on Obama’s behalf. It is to that end that the campaign is building a unified platform for staffers and volunteers alike, providing the same tools to a volunteer at home as to a staffer in a campaign office; it is to that end that the campaign is honing its understanding of each potential voter, donor, or volunteer, through whispered-of data mining and list segmentation projects with codenames like “Narwhal” or “Dreamcatcher;” and it is to that end that the campaign is hoping to build tools for supporters to upload their own stories to share.”

These stories are right on a number of levels. The 2008 Obama campaign struggled mightily with data integration issues.  Specifically, in 2008 the campaign tried to integrate its online data that came through the platform and the Democratic Party’s voter file, accessed through Votebuilder. These integration issues limited the utility of many of the campaign’s tools and hindered the coordination of new media and field operations. For example, online tools that enabled supporters to contact voters were poorly integrated with the voter file and the work practices of field staffers, which meant that the hundreds of thousands of canvass calls supporters made online went to low priority targets.

Even more, these articles are correct that the innovations of 2012 will be in the more effective integration and management of this data – particularly given the importance of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter that, ironically given how we tend to remember 2008, played a more narrow role in the campaign than conventionally thought.  Although, this data does not stop at external communications with voters or leveraging supporter social networks as the conduits of persuasive messages.  It is about the growing use of analytic practices in all domains of campaigning, part of “computational management,” or the delegation of key managerial, allocative, and design decisions to the results of rigorous and ongoing data analysis.

All that said, personalizing communications and a new digital two-step flow for passing campaign messages through social networks will not deliver the election for Obama. When thinking about the 2012 election I always recall what Michael Slaby, the 2008 campaign’s chief technology officer and the 2012 campaign’s chief integration and innovation officer, said to me:

“We didn’t have to generate desire very often. We had to capture and empower interest and desire. . . . We made intelligent decisions that kept it growing but I don’t think anybody can really claim we started something.”

The proliferation of political data (which is completely unregulated) certainly raises privacy issues, and the tailoring of information environments and “redlining” the electorate raise concerns for democratic practice. But, these sorts of “top secret” projects (that have tens of thousands of results on Google) like Narwhal only make a difference at the margins. Persuasive communications of this sort are about appealing to and activating already sympathetic publics, not magically converting Romney or Santorum voters to Obama through finely crafted, personalized appeals.  The hope is that these communications will prove persuasive to those the campaign has modeled as leaning towards Obama, and that it will help turnout, particularly in electorally important states.  Even more, this data is mustered to craft targeted communications – increasingly to individuals – but campaigns alone do not determine what voters encounter. There are other institutions, such as the press, that vet the claims of campaigns, which set boundaries around how much these messages can be tailored. Rival campaigns also engage in setting the agenda of the press and public.

In short, at the end of the day control is not absolute; as James Beniger noted long ago, it is probabilistic. Even more, there are no game changers. Campaigns are managed more or less badly. The best tools in the world can not change the electoral context – the fact that the nation remains mired in steep unemployment. The mobilization that Slaby speaks of came from the historical moment of the 2008 campaign.  The political opportunity for Democrats, the candidate’s rhetoric and charisma, as well as the fact that he was a blank slate that the electorate projected its dreams and desires for transformation upon, fueled this desire.

2012 is unfolding in a radically different context.  It is telling that while in 2008 the campaign used its new media tools to translate an already present desire into electoral resources, now the tools are being used in the service of generating that desire.

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