The 2012 U.S. presidential election was unusual in several respects: Obama won the re-election with the highest unemployment rate since FDR, and it was the most expensive election ever, anywhere at $6 billion, but history will remember it as the breakthrough election for analytics.
There was a striking disparity between the popular vote and the electoral vote in this election:
This is no accident. Obama consistently won the right districts in the states he needed to win in this election, which resulted in a narrow victory by popular vote, but a wide margin of victory by electoral votes. This outcome reflects the focus of the Obama platform in this campaign: the right votes in the right places will win the election.
At the time of this writing, fewer than 3 million votes — roughly 2% of all votes cast — decided the election at the national level. In key battleground states, though, the race was much closer. For example, Obama carried Ohio — the state that pushed Obama over the magical 270 electoral vote count — by fewer than 100,000 votes, all of which came from a few key, populous districts:
It’s not odd that a Democratic candidate carried more densely-populated, urban districts while a Republican candidate carried more rural districts, but what is surprising is exactly how effectively and precisely Obama carried those “right” districts.
Early in the election, both candidates used electoral math to determine the combinations of states each could carry to win the election. Both platforms then identified districts and states in which they were likely to win, likely to lose, and which were contested, and then planned their campaigns accordingly. The key difference in this election was Obama’s early and continued commitment to analytics, which gave his campaign better, more dynamic information about where it was winning and losing, and in the places it was losing where and how to spend its time and money to change the most hearts and minds. By constantly reacting to small changes in social, web, and poll data, plus qualitative observations from Obama’s trademark “field team,” the Obama campaign was able to steer its resources away from leading areas and toward key demographics in lagging areas, which allowed it to have the right message in the right place more than the Romney campaign. These microtargeted “tactical strikes” were an important weapon in Obama’s campaign arsenal.
This “analytics gap” was a key determining factor in the outcome of the election, and drove Obama to target key demographics, namely women and minorities, and win. Indeed, Obama’s analytics were so effective that he was able to carry the election with a roughly 30% electoral margin with just a 3% popular margin.
Ultimately, better data makes better decisions, which makes better outcomes. How good is your data?