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One of the big stories out of the 2012 election has been the quiet revolution in how political campaigns operate. Team Obama ran a campaign on the cutting edge of political science, incorporating new insights into how and why people vote. (Incidentally, you can read about a lot of these new techniques in the great new book, The Victory Lab, by Sasha Issenberg.)
The Obama For America (OFA) approach was obviously extremely successful when it came to GOTV (get out the vote) efforts. Their ability to get marginal Obama supporters and sporadic voters to the polls resulted in an electorate that was nearly as Democratic as the 2008 wave election. But Team Obama was also innovating on a second front: Advertising.
T.W. Farnam reports in the Washington Post that OFA, in an effort to stretch their budget, went about buying commercial airtime in a completely new way:
Most campaigns buy airtime based on television ratings for different demographic groups, selecting the shows they think likely voters will watch. In their attempts to find new efficiency, Obama aides threw that conventional wisdom out the window — instead choosing airtime only by the time of day and the channel.
The result was a system they called “the optimizer” that took into account information gathered from door-knockers and phone canvassers when they picked whether to advertise on, say, ESPN or TV Land.
The “optimizer” allowed OFA to stop wasting money by running commercials for people who had already made up their minds. Instead, they were able to target Obama supporters who couldn’t be counted on to actually go to the polls and undecided voters. But how did OFA know what kinds of shows these people watched?
The team bought detailed data on TV viewing by millions of cable subscribers, showing which channels they were watching, sometimes on a second-by-second basis. The information — which is collected from set-top cable boxes and sold by a company called Rentrak — doesn’t show who was watching, but the campaign used a third-party company to match viewing data to its own internal list of voters and poll responses.
That information didn’t come cheap—OFA paid over $350,000 on Rentrak data alone. But the team ultimately made that money back through a more efficient allocation of their resources, with Obama officials estimating that they got a 10%-20% more efficient use of their money by using the optimizer.
The Obama campaign has been the first national team to embrace the new era of data-driven politics, and they have done so with gusto. Team Romney, with its pathetic “ORCA” GOTV effort and its dinosaur ad-buying strategy, stands as a warning to future campaigns: Modernize or die.
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