Innovations in Obama's ground operation

Correction: This post on Sept. 11 incorrectly referred to author Sasha Issenberg as Ms. Issenberg. Sasha Issenberg is a man.

If you think the 2012 election will be historically close, then it’s worth knowing more about the data-mining and voter-contact operation being run by the Obama campaign, since which campaign succeeds in getting out its vote will likely win. I have written before about how the Obama campaign is likely rewriting the rules about how elections are won, but I had little real knowledge of the specifics of its data operation since it is a closely guarded trade secret. But a new book, “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns” by Sasha Issenberg, raises the curtain slightly and allows us to speculate.

Based on what I know of Issenberg’s book and my understanding of how voter contact works in general, here’s what I think the Obama campaign is doing.

First, instead of treating undecided voters as a static universe known only by their demography and geography, the campaign’s data center, designed by Google engineers, is developing a lot more personalized information about these voters. What issues do they care about? What are their values? What are they hearing in the campaign that concerns or energizes them? Armed with this information and with constant updating, the campaign can much better tailor its communications. Instead of treating undecided voters as passive recipients of information based on a set demographic or geographic profile, the campaign can personalize its outreach and, in effect, have a dialogue with individual voters.

And from an early take on the book, here is the second innovation I think is taking place in Chicago.  Based on its analysis of undecided voters and a much deeper understanding of their individual concerns, the campaign is able to use an algorithm to help it find voters who may not be in anyone’s pool of likely voters.  In other words, voter-contact operations have historically concentrated, for obvious reasons, on people who are likely to vote. But the algorithm helps the Obama team find other potential new voters and communicate with them based on the profile it has developed in its data-mining operation.

What is ironic is that in 2008, Obama won with an overarching vision backed by a voter-contact and turnout machine. In 2012, the ground operation may dwarf the air force in importance.

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