Big Data can generate smog or sense (and cents). That’s exactly what happened in the 2012 presidential election. Each of the four dimensions of Big Data – volume, velocity, variety, and veracity – were involved. So were outsourcing and insourcing.
Campaigns rely on massive amounts of data to get out the vote (GOTV). Communication must be clear, concise, timely and reach everyone. The Romney campaign couldn’t achieve these goals even after spending more than $40 million on outsourcing their technology services and basic IT operations. Technologist John Ekdahl, a volunteer with the Romney campaign, wryly blogged that “a supposedly small-government candidate gutted the local structure of GOTV efforts in favor of a centralized, faceless organization in a far off place” – campaign headquarters in Boston TD Garden.
Romney’s campaign strategy relied on Orca, a voter-tracking app that was largely untested and completely unknown to its expected users when it went live at 6 a.m. on Election Day. (The 60-page manual for Orca was issued the night before the election, attached to an email that few people received.) Orca crashed with the first influx of data and throughout the day, and there were bandwidth problems.
The Obama campaign preferred insourcing. The campaign bought hardware and software licenses and hired an IT department. Campaign technologists relied on open-source tools and cloud-based infrastructure impervious to issues of scale and Hurricane Sandy. Nicknamed Narwhal, the Obama GOTV system went live long before the election. The app nicknamed Gordon generated GOTV data on Election Day.
Ars Technica analyzed Federal Election Commission filings and concluded that President Obama’s campaign underspent Governor Romney’s campaign on IT products and services by $14.5 million.
The Obama campaign received real-time updates in nanoseconds. Pending problems were announced through community help tickets entered primarily by volunteers.
Along with Orca crashes and bandwidth problems, server spikes caused the Romney campaign’s ISP to reject data, fearing a denial of service attack—and they had no backup plan. The campaign was forced to glean information about the election from television newscasts and phone conversations.
The Obama campaign used data from purchase histories, voter registration and campaign contacts to personally reach certain types of voters. Republicans used the same kinds of data to generate television advertising, direct mail and robocalls.
Republicans chose to believe that the polls oversampled Democrats. Internal polls used Republican turnout levels that were more favorable and influenced the campaign strategy. That’s how Republicans misread and misunderstood the reality of Election Day.
Many Republicans now feel that the reality of technology doesn’t match the hype. Part of the problem lies in relying on strategists, not technologists. Volunteers for the Romney campaign were told that Orca was a “mobile app,” but people were unable to download the app onto their smartphones, because Orca was actually a mobile-friendly website. And a 60-page manual for a website? That might have been acceptable when user manuals required sacrificing multiple trees, but not today.