Politicians uncovering big benefits in ‘big data’
The growing amount of data gathered from social media sites, vendors and data warehouses is providing new opportunities for political parties to reach constituents in a very personal way.
“Big data” — huge and hugely complex sets of information — has been an abundant source of marketing fodder for businesses trying to read the minds of consumers and understand what they most care about. The success of President Obama’s 2012 campaign was partly owed to its big data “dream team,” and now political parties at the state level are adopting related strategies.
David Ferguson, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party is forging ahead with new techniques, which include recording information about individual voters, such as whether they have a gun license or a boat permit and what magazines they subscribe to.
“The record-keeping side of big data helps build stronger relationships, and it helps politicians seem smarter than they are,” Mr. Ferguson said. “I think people appreciate that — people appreciate that extra mile.”
For instance, if a person belongs to the National Rifle Association, holds gun and hunting licenses and subscribes to a hunting magazine, then gun rights issues would be emphasized when reaching that person about a specific election or candidate. The analysis targets individuals and neighborhoods but also looks at broader demographics. Particularly in a blue state like Maryland, Republican grass-roots campaigning is key for shifting the political status quo, officials believe.
They focus on obtaining data on issues that resonate within particular neighborhoods. They can then urge residents to vote for their local candidates by highlighting candidates’ views on these issues. Party officials hope to begin with a local approach and then work more broadly to statewide issues and races.
“Instead of top-down, it’s bottom-up, and a rising tide lifts all boats,” Mr. Ferguson said.
Personal data can be obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, purchased from vendors or simply collected from public documents, such as real estate records.
Political organizations can consider wealth and propensity to donate before asking for money. This targeting might be directed toward individuals or groups. Mr. Ferguson said that after implementing data analytics, the Maryland Republican Party is $17,000 ahead of its fundraising schedule.
While the use of big data in politics is increasingly prevalent, it’s still a tool that some shy away from discussing.
The Republican Party of Virginia confirmed it has begun incorporating data analytics, but Executive Director Anthony Reedy said he did not “feel comfortable talking about it.”
State-level Democrats in Maryland and Virginia said they have used similar data-analysis tools but also declined to comment specifically on their methods.
Software developed by companies including Pennsylvania-based BehaviorMatrix extracts microdata from digital media ranging from Twitter to comment sections on news websites. BehaviorMatrix hires specialists in natural language processing and computational linguistics, fields of computer science that apply artificial intelligence to derive useful meaning and insights from the avalanche of online communication.
Online activity can reveal what people like and think better than traditional methods, Mr. Thompson added. “Polls introduce bias. If you’re familiar with the organization presenting the poll, you may give it the answer you think it’s looking for,” he said.
Data analytics can help a political group understand why people cross party lines to vote for a particular candidate — an ability that could be crucial for minority parties, like Maryland Republicans. Democrats who in recent years signed petitions on hot-button political questions like gay marriage and immigration could be targeted and encouraged to vote for Republican candidates aligned with their views on specific issues.
There’s even a mobile app that people can reference before approaching a house and offering political literature. A solicitor might know before knocking on the door not only the resident’s political affiliation but also details about the issues he or she holds dear.
On a national level, “parties in most states are understanding that big data is critical nowadays,” said William Adams, president and CEO of RocketBase Solutions, a Virginia data-management company. New software is simplifying data analysis for non-technical people who would have found it difficult without the technology.
Even without special software, parties can learn valuable information about their constituents from sites like Facebook. State residents who “like” the state Democratic or Republican party pages and also “like” a pro-choice or pro-gun page provide data about how many party members within a certain state value a certain issue.
The software is available to consolidate more in-depth data from LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and more, and from there, to record and organize knowledge useful for enticing people to the ballot box.
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