What does the data show about the Obama campaign’s use of data?

So far, there has been a weird paradox at the heart of the coverage about the Obama 2012 campaign machine. On the one hand we’re all meant to be impressed by how it was based on data and analysis, honing campaign techniques and targeting activity based on what the data said. On the other hand, we’re meant to take it all on trust (or trust plus bucketloads of anecdotes; i.e. trust) that this hard-nosed, evidence-based approach to campaigning worked. Where’s the evidence that the reliance on evidence really worked?

There’s been remarkably little presented. Which is why the following graph is so important.

It measures a very simple thing: how did the Obama 2012 vote share in each state compare to the Obama 2008 vote share? Overall, we know there was a small fall in his vote share. How did that play out across the different states? What variation was there between those states that had lots of TV ads from him, rallies a-plenty and all that high-tech, evidence-based campaigning and those states which his campaign basically ignored?

In other words, was there a uniform swing across the country or did his campaign do relatively better in the places which they targeted the most?

The answer: it was a uniform swing.

As the Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball email newsletter, from which the graph comes, says:

How a state voted in 2008 was predictive of how it voted in 2012. The correlation between President Obama’s margin in 2012 and his margin in 2008 across all 50 states and D.C. is .96. In other words, you can closely predict Obama’s margin in 2012 almost perfectly from his margin in 2008; his drop from 2008 to 2012 was fairly uniform …

The biggest outliers are Utah, where Obama did substantially worse than expected in 2012, and Alaska, where he did substantially better than expected. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism probably explains why Obama underperformed in Utah, and Sarah Palin’s absence from the national ticket might explain Obama’s uptick in Alaska.

How to explain this? One option is simply to dismiss all the talk about the Obama campaign machine, put it down to excitable journalistic hype encouraged by the self-interest of the winners in talking up how great they were.

Certainly anyone who wants to argue that the Obama campaign really was good, needs to have a good answer to this.

An alternative is to credit the Romney campaign. Yes, the Obama campaign was great in the swing states – but in those it faced an intensive Romney campaign, so both could have been really effective – and cancelled each other out. There is a problem with that, as on most measures the Romney campaign seems to have been a lot less effective. Significant IT problems, deeply flawed polling, fewer Facebook fans, less impact on Twitter, not as many YouTube views; the list goes on.

The one measure on which the Romney campaign went head to head and achieved parity that I’ve found is TV advertising spend in the key states (though the Obama campaign generally claimed it got much better value for money). At best, then, the ‘but they were both great’ explanation becomes ‘sod the ground war, it was the TV advertising which mattered and they fought themselves to a draw’.

A more plausible explanation, based on the evidence so far, is that Obama ground campaign was very good but the ground campaign does not make that much of a difference when up against the state of the economy, a four year incumbency record and so on. The old rule of thumb often quoted in US politics is that the ground game can shift your vote by 1-3%. Perhaps for all the talk, that’s still the case. A slim difference like that would be vital in close races yet also get lost in the statistical noise of the 2008 to 2012 comparisons.

My guess is that as further evidence comes out it will be a two-part answer. One part – that American politics is so polarised socially, ethnically and geographically that there is much less room for clever campaign tactics to make a big difference than there is in the UK. The second part – that at the tactical level of techniques, there was much that was impressive even if in the end it didn’t alter Obama’s vote share much. With the greater ability to buck the national trend in the UK than in the US, the benefits of applying those tactical lessons in the UK will be all the greater.

However when someone from the US comes touting a lesson to learn, the first question back to them should be: look at the graph and tell me why your lesson is really true. Those with good lessons and genuine data will have a convincing answer to that. Those jumping on the latest hype bandwagon won’t.

UPDATE: Ethan Roeder, Director of Data for the Obama campaign, has written a response to this post.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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7 Comments

  • A few points, firstly before any analysis of swing is done, it is probably a good idea to wait for the final vote tally. There are literally millions still to count on the west coast (in 08 it took 5weeks). There is also 204k possible in OH, (http://www.ideastream.org/news/feature/50385) and possible many others in other states too.

    Secondly, the graph regresses the swing of the states not population. That is tiny Wyoming is given the same weight as California. May not make much of a difference but worth testing.

    Thirdly, to calculate ground game you would probably need to be a control in for race. Obama did especially well among minorities irrespective of ground game, and in the above graph many of non-competitive states in which Obama did significantly better than the regression would indicate, have a high % of minorities.

    Finally, there is one explanation that you left out, that the McCain campaign had a really bad ground game. (There is considerable amount of evidence for this).

    However, I wouldn’t really disagree about a good ground game being worth ‘only’ 1-3% but at least in the US, that was the election in 2 of the last 4 elections, and this one would have been down to a knife edge.

  • As I said on Twitter, there is some evidence he outperformed (or Romney underperformed) in some key marginal states – https://twitter.com/mjturner1975/status/269814463237070848/photo/1 – but even on a uniform national swing he would have won the election comfortably (he wouldn’t have won Florida though).

  • I think this analysis is far to simplistic. Presidents with this kind of approval ratings in this kind of economy are not supposed to be re-elected, especially when independents are breaking for the challenger. So the question is was Obama’s campaign machine what turned the tide in his favor.

    Well, when you examine the effectiveness of a US Presidential campaign you only look at the 10 battleground states. There may be residual effects in neighboring states, but really neither campaign put any effort or resources into the other 40 states. Obama won 9 of those, all by lesser margins than 2008. But that doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.

    Unfortunately I don’t have all the relevant numbers. In fact I only have one that I remembered because it was so striking. 2008 was a truly historic election. Minorities came out to vote like never before. The conventional wisdom was that Obama would have a very difficult time matching those numbers. Yet between 2008 and 2012 the Ohio electorate’s percentage of black voters increased from 11% to 15%, about a 40% increase.

    I would like to think part of that is from backlash from republican voter suppression attempts. In 2010 when republicans gained control of many state governments they passed voter ID laws that not only combated non-existent voter fraud, but also just happened to disproportionally disenfranchise democratic voters. Also if you happened to live in a densely populated democratic area of a swing state with a republican controlled state government (Ohio and Florida) you had your early voting hours cut, guaranteeing super long lines if you waited till election day to vote. Other blocks of constituents that tend to vote for Obama had their own beef with Romney or the GOP in general: “legitimate rape” and “god intended rape pregnancies” comments from GOP senators, draconian anti-immigration legislation and comments, the 47% of Americans are moochers, etc.

    So what swung the election in Obama’s favor? Was it anger at the GOP, Obama’s campaign, or a combination? I don’t know. What I do know is that this campaign has done things no other campaign has done, the electorate in the swing states were substantially changed in their favor, and all metrics pre-election suggested this president would not get re-elected. And that is a story that gets completely missed by the “uniform swing” graph.

  • Richard Allanach 18th Nov '12 - 4:51pm

    Was the Obama database as good as it was touted? Certainly in the state I was working in, Virginia, it included a number of errors – people who had not lived in the state for two years, supporters who were under the age to vote etc etc.

  • It is an interesting and observations. The key difference seems to be the Obama ground organisation, which helped get the vote out right across the country. This was not restricted to the key swing states. This may account for the fairly uniform swing.

    Some of the Democratic base may be disappointed with the lack of progress under Obama, but given the outright opposition of the republicans in the senate, it was difficult. It is worth pointing out that he is not following an austerity and tax cutting agenda as proposed by the Republicans.

    For an incumbent government to succeed, it needs to have the support of and activitism of its base. WIth regard to the Liberal Democrats can the party seriously look anybody in the eye and say that it has retained its activists ? The next election for the Liberal Democrats looks very serious for the Liberal Democrats on this basis alone.

    I am very glad that Obama won, as the implication of an austerity led government for such a large economy would have risked disastrous depression like consequences for world economy, protectionism against the Chinese and the likelihood of another disastrous war. Of course, the Republicans and American right may lead us to disaster if they let the US economy fall off the fiscal cliff with similar catastrophic results for the world economy.

  • ” so why wasn’t the change in vote share in them different from those states where it didn’t change?”. I don’t think that graph is saying that. For that you would need to separate the battle ground states from the others. I don’t have the know how to create my own R2 linear graph, but I can do a simple analysis on the 5 most import states. These are the states that Obama had the least amount of voter share and if Romney won all of them (he only won North Carolina) he would have won the election. If the list were to include 6 that state would be Pennsylvania, but I excluded it because despite commonly being mention as a battleground state there was not a whole lot of campaigning there. Romney did make a late play but there were no add buys from May until the end of October.

    So these 5 states in order of Obama’s voter share (smallest to largest) are North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and Colorado. The margin of difference between Obama’s voter share in 2008 and 2012 in these states are (in the same order) -2.6, -1.9, -2.1, -3.3, & -3.9. Without all of the vote counted, I believe the drop off in the popular vote for the whole country is -4.5. So there is evidence that Obama “out campaigned” Romney in the most important states. This subject fascinates me and I’ve been reading everything I can about it (which is how I came across this article). My feeling is if the electorate was the same as it was in 2008 (meaning 74% white) Romney would have crushed NC and Florida, won Ohio, squeaked by Virginia, and…probably still lost Colorado and therefore the election.

    I also think that it is no coincidence that the 2 best performers for Obama in terms of drop off from 2008 (swing state wise) were Florida and Ohio. Both Obama and Romney practically lived in those states. Some of the things the did sound cool, but you have to question how effective it was. For example they figured out a bunch of voters watch re-runs of Judge Judy instead of the news, so they bought cheap ads there. Does someone really change there vote based on Judge Judy commercials? Then there’s behavioral science and technological stuff they did. They had an opt-in Facebook add that would send you a message like “hey your buddy Mark Pack hasn’t voted yet, how bout giving him a call”. Talk about shaming you into voting. I think that kind of thing is just as cool as it is creepy.

    So you may be right that the campaign only affected 1-3% of the vote, but in the electoral college it’s of the utmost importance where you get that 1-3%. Assuming a uniform swing across all the states, Romney could have won the popular vote by 1 or 2 points and still lost. I don’t think that is by accident. So yeah, I do think the Obama campaign machine was the difference between a true toss up and a race that really wasn’t that close.

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