How Data Has Changed Election Campaigning

13 Nov 2016


The moment Barack Obama was elected President in 2008 was a historic day for America and in how elections are fought. The campaign that President Obama ran in 2008 was the first to place a huge emphasis on gathering and using data to tailor its messages down to an almost individual basis. The 2008 campaign changed how elections are fought and those tactics have been embraced in every election since with the 2016 campaign being the most data heavy campaign ever.


A former Obama campaigner told Nesta online that, “We stopped thinking in terms of "soccer moms" and started thinking in terms of Mary Smith at 37 Pivot Street, alongside John Jones at 38 Pivot Street.” The 2008 and following campaigns used big data to identify the right messages for the right people.


Election campaign teams utilise polling, social media and door to door campaigning to gather huge amounts of data. The data is analysed by the campaign and files are compiled on areas, groups of people and even households or individuals. These files can be used to send campaigners to target states or constituencies or particular neighbourhoods with a message scientifically designed to appeal to the types of people there. Everything from your political leanings down to which newspaper you read and the sports teams you follow can be profiled and fed in to data led calculations.


This successful strategy helped both of Barack Obama’s campaigns as the specific, detailed data was used more effectively by Democrats to target the right demographic with the right message and then to make sure they got out to vote. This strategy was intensified further in this year’s Presidential campaigns.


In the UK all the main political parties took note of the success of these campaigns and began investing heavily in building up a database of voter information. According to Nesta, Labour is using a version of the nation builder software while the Conservatives are rebuilding and strengthening a system they use called Merlin.  Both parties also employed high level people from the US campaigns to work on their 2015 election strategies including David Axelrod and Jim Messina.


The Practicalities


Political parties globally are now investing heavily in data and refining the ways in which they utilise the data. Polling companies and private polling builds the database using membership information and online questionnaires to add further data. In the 2016 US election, campaigners went door to door promoting candidates and asking questions which were immediately relayed to the campaign base on tablets for further data. The data is filtered, analysed and grouped so that campaigns are able to see swing areas, which messages work and where progress is good or faltering, enabling them to target resources and specific messages on identified voters.  


A Channel 4 News report looked at how this data was being put into effect in the 2016 Presidential campaigns. It was claimed that both campaigns have a file on every voter in the US and were grouped by everything including psychological traits. The campaigns were using this information to target messages to particular homes and even used to decide where a rally might have the biggest impact.  


The Data Effect


It could be argued that the use of data in this way makes politicians even less trustworthy as they can simply put out a message which is statistically designed to appeal to the largest amount, or a specific group, of people. On the other hand it means that politicians have a greater understanding of what people in the country are concerned about and are able to focus their efforts on addressing those areas. The out of touch politician could be a thing of the past.


The main effect has been the complete overhauling of a political campaign and the realisation clever use of data can win elections. No longer do political parties place such an emphasis on rallies, political broadcasts or even debates, instead campaigns utilise data to target particular groups of voters on social media and through the internet




The Conservatives used data most effectively in the 2015 election which was a major factor in their victory. The party spent £1.2million on Facebook advertising alone in the run up to the general election, using the data they had to send specific messages in to the feeds of specific voters in marginal seats. In comparison Labour spent just £130,000 on Facebook. As polling day got closer the Conservatives targeted their messages even further down to gender and their political leaning, using specific slogans and policies which they knew statistically would appeal and could swing key areas.


The result of this data inspired, targeted messaging specifying voters, in particular areas with particular messages saw the Conservatives win an unexpected majority. The Conservatives also won nine key marginal seats that they were not expected to win, including Bolton West, Pudsey, Carlisle and Corby. Their strategy targeted older, less politically engaged Facebook users rather than younger more engaged voters on Twitter. Data showed that if voters over 65 were omitted then Labour would have won the 2015 election, proving that a data enthused, targeted, online messaging strategy can be highly effective.


Elections across the world are now being won using data. Campaigns now look to gather and utilise huge swathes of data to win undecided voters. After Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns and the Conservatives 2015, it is evidence an effective use of data increases the chances of electoral success. With  Forbes predicting the 2016 Presidential campaign to be the most expensive and most data filled campaign ever, data analysts look set to become almost as important as the candidates themselves



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