FIELDS: Big data becomes Big Daddy

Obama won with targeted messages for every voter type

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Every four years the seating arrangement at the Thanksgiving table becomes especially sensitive. The presidential election is recent history, but putting space between winners and losers can be crucial.

The generation gaps between family and friends become the scenes of battle, and passions run high among voting-age adults.

This year, fault lines will no doubt focus on Mitt Romney’s post-campaign analysis of how and why he lost. His remarks that he couldn’t compete with the “gifts” bestowed on Democratic constituencies contains an element of truth, but it betrays bitterness. We hadn’t associated bitterness with Mitt Romney.

You’re not likely to hear a discouraging word about Barack Obama’s re-election, and how he did it, from college-age kids joining in the turkey feast. “Forgiveness of loan interest was a big gift,” Mr. Romney said. “Free contraceptives were very big with young, college-age women.” It reinforced the idea of which man cared about them, as cynical as that may be. The president’s boast that he had kept everyone 26 years or younger on his parent’s plan with Obamacare held considerable appeal to the generation that never wants to leave home. In the battleground states where it counted, such as Florida, Ohio and Virginia, the president increased his share of the 18- to 29-year-old voters over 2008.

Mr. Romney spoke of assorted gifts the president gave to Hispanics and blacks in return for the high percentages of their vote. Such remarks provoked scathing criticism from Bobby Jindal, the popular Republican governor of Louisiana, who joined the chorus of Republicans railing against what they saw as a Republican exploitation of the divisions in America. “We have to stop dividing the American voters,” Mr. Jindal, whose family came to America from India, told reporters at the Republican Governors Association in Las Vegas. “We need to go after 100 percent of the votes.”

That, too, had an element of truth, but it’s a glaring truth that the Democrats exploited divisions with greater enthusiasm and in a more clever way. They sliced and diced their appeals into smaller and smaller categories, and won big partly because their divisions were data-driven, not idea-driven, and the slicing and dicing was interpreted by high-tech numbers crunchers who knew what they were doing.

The Democrats were infinitely superior in crunching the numbers of smaller and smaller psychological pieces. If you hear the word “cookies” in these conversations, it’s unlikely that anyone’s describing Granny’s pecan- and chocolate-chip favorites. It will be about the small files of data broken into targeted categories for reaching specific voters, which won the election for the president.

“In this year’s election, it looks as if the Obama team’s use of such data was one of its biggest edges over the Romney effort,” writes Gordon Crovitz in the Wall Street Journal. He discovered a telling example of how applied cookies worked in a $40,000 fundraiser ticket invitation at the Manhattan home of actress Sarah Jessica Parker. The wording on the invitation depended on who was getting it.

For some, the emphasis in the invitation was on her motherhood, for others it was noted that Vogue editor Anna Wintour would be at her party. Others noted that a concert by Mariah Carey would follow the fundraiser later that night.

For those who wouldn’t have $40,000 to spare, this was merely academic information, but it shows how the latest in cookies, data developed for targeting customers through advertising, works for targeting voters. It’s a brave, new world dimension of psychological dissection, but since it worked for the Obama team, it’s here to stay. Data-dicing trumps hunch and intuition.

The Obama data crunchers showed Time magazine what they did and how they did it, with the stipulation that everything would be withheld until after the election. The magazine learned how Miss Parker is determined to exercise the gravitational pull in raising Obama money on the Atlantic Coast that George Clooney does in Hollywood. Not only money is at stake.

These same data crunchers helped the president win the swing states with a massive megafile, equivalent to what one cruncher called the Democratic “nuclear codes.” Voters were targeted like campaign contributors, organized in parallel worlds. Data analysts replaced media consultants in making successful analyses and predictions, determining which appeals would work on specific people. Psychological information was added to the basics like age, sex, race, neighborhood and voting records.

Those who make educated decisions based on hunches are out. “Quants,” the soft term for hard-headed quantitative analysts, are in. Big data becomes Big Daddy. Pass the turkey, and lay on the cranberry sauce.

Suzanne Fields is a syndicated columnist.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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