Data Doesn't Belong to the Democrats

Just wait for 2016.

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Drew Thaler

One of the leading narratives of the 2012 campaign is that data trumped all. Nate Silver! The polling was dead on! The blowhard pundits were wrongThe Obama campaign's Internet money machine got people to give lots of money over the summer with George Clooney-dinner enticements tailor made for West Coast females aged 40 to 49


But there's a problem with the celebration: it's not as if the Romney camp did not try to use data. Let's not forget that American business, whence Romney came, has been onto the old 'big data' thing since even before Walmart figured out you like Pop Tarts before a hurricane. In fact, the Washington Examiner reports, they created a software package called 'Orca' that was supposed to be the biggest data gathering and interpretation effort in modern American politics.

Some Romney aides were surprised too, especially since they had put an enormous amount of effort into tracking the hour-by-hour whims of the electorate.  In recent weeks the campaign came up with a super-secret, super-duper vote monitoring system that was dubbed Project Orca.  The name "Orca," after the whale, was apparently chosen to suggest that the project was bigger than anything any other campaign, including Barack Obama's in 2008, had ever imagined.  For the project, Romney aides gathered about 34,000 volunteers spread across the swing states to send in information about what was happening at the polls.  "The project operates via a web-based app volunteers use to relay the most up-to-date poll information to a 'national dashboard' at the Boston headquarters," said a campaign email on election eve.  "From there, data will be interpreted and utilized to plan voter turnout tactics on Election Day."

Orca, which was headquartered in a giant war room spread across the floor of the Boston Garden, turned out to be problematic at best.  Early in the evening, one aide said that, as of 4 p.m., Orca still projected a Romney victory of somewhere between 290 and 300 electoral votes.  Obviously that didn't happen.  Later, another aide said Orca had pretty much crashed in the heat of the action.  "Somebody said Orca is lying on the beach with a harpoon in it," said the aide.

Let's not forget, either, that it was only in 2004 that it was Karl Rove and Republicans who were perceived (rightly, in my mind) to hold the edge on data.

But in the key state of Ohio, Mr Bush's support of a ban on gay marriage and opposition to abortion persuaded a critical margin of voters to overcome their economic concerns about job losses and support his re-election.

The Bush campaign plan was built by long-time adviser Karl Rove. It relied on creating an intricate database of evangelical Christians and others united by conservative issues such as abortion, gun control and same-sex marriages.

In the campaign's final days, core Bush supporters turned out a network of friends and family, overwhelming the Democrats' own strong turnout campaign.

Or take these details from Josh Green's 2004 Atlantic feature on Rove, who was, after all, a direct-mail guy.

"The thing that was most important to him was the mechanics: making certain that the campaign could block and tackle," recalls a staffer who worked for Rove's direct-mail firm in the 1980s and 1990s. Rove would typically begin a race by constructing seven-layer spreadsheets of the electoral history of a particular office, charting where votes for each candidate had originated and which groups had supplied them. In the 1980s these data led Rove to conclude that his candidates ought to target "ticket-splitters"--Texans who supported Ronald Reagan for President but voted Democratic in downballot races.

Rove's direct-mail experience had provided him with a nuanced understanding of precisely what motivates ticket-splitters. According to Karl Rove & Co. data on the 1994 Texas governor's race, Rove was aware, for instance, that households that received a single piece of mail turned out for Bush at a rate of 15.45 percent, and those that received three pieces at a rate of 50.83 percent. Turnout peaked at seven pieces (57.88 percent), after which enthusiasm for Bush presumably gave way to feelings of inundation, and support began to drop.

What's my point in all this? The left's celebrating the analytical method right now as if it belonged to them. But it doesn't. Regardless of whatever Peggy Noonan was saying publicly, this election was not a triumph of data over no data, of rigor over hunch. The 2012 election was a triumph of Democratic data over Republican data. 

And you can bet that the first thing Republican operatives are doing right now is taking a lot of Advil building a (better) mobile-first data strategy for 2016.

Update: I slipped that "(better)" into my last line based on Nick Judd's reporting at Tech President. The Romney team was operating "under a mobile-first digital strategy," he told me.

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