The first headline is that, to an as-yet-unknown extent and degree of success, “GOP Joins Dems in Using Big Data.”
The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, appeared at my school on Oct. 2 to talk about the election campaigns. George Washington University Political Management Professor and Program Director Lara Brown’s first question to Priebus was: are you making progress catching up on digital, and how will you measure that, since election outcomes depend on a variety of factors? Priebus replied that this “goes to the heart of what the RNC has to do.” Before 2014, he continued, the RNC had seen its role as filling a “U-Haul trailer of cash for a presidential nominee.” (Nice sound bite.) But now “on-the-ground engagement is job #1” and the party’s canvassing was being informed by propensity rankings, a sign of predictive modeling, one of the staples of big data analytics.
A propensity ranking goes beyond categorizing the persons opening their doors to campaigners as likely voters and supporters, assigning each one numbers on 100-point scales. Then — if the GOP proceeded as the Democrats do — the party not only contacts voters according to the rankings, but uses the accompanying information to guide what the canvasser says to each voter. Completing the optimization loop, canvassers immediately report back on their voter encounters via smartphone so as to refine the analytics further.
That the RNC chair was talking about propensity rankings and ground-level engagement outcomes was a sign that Priebus approaches his job much as Howard Dean approached his at the Democratic National Committee a decade ago, and that the GOP is working systematically, continuously, and smartly to catch up on bulking up field operations and backing them with detailed intelligence. We know that Americans for Prosperity, the independent organization backed by the Koch brothers, mounted a similar operation this year.
So did it make a difference? Absent further evidence, it is impossible to say. Currently, digital politics teams are poring over election results to learn, again at a detailed individual level, how well various combinations of message contents and engagement tactics worked. The next frontier, approached but not crossed by the Democrats during the first three quarters of the Obama presidency, is using big data analytics to guide policymaking and implementation, and integrating those results with election campaigning.
Headline number two slugs the larger story of Election 2014: “Dems Pay Heavy Price for Failing to Narrate Their Economic Story.”
To wit, Democrats now hold fewer offices at the state and national levels of government than at any time since 1932. That year, of course, Franklin Roosevelt ran against the record of Herbert Hoover, much as the GOP has run against Obama repeatedly this decade. The following year, beginning with his “nothing to fear but fear itself” Inaugural Address, FDR promised the American people a better economic future. So did Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Other candidates rode foreign policy and other domestic issues into the White House, including Obama in 2008.
But Obama has never been a good economic storyteller. Clinton had to ride to his rescue on this score at the Democratic Convention in 2012. Two years later, despite having a host of upwardly trending economic indicators for narrative material, Obama again failed to make the case that things were looking better for middle-class Americans worried about their capacity to pay for what they dream of having and providing.
This is, quite simply, a mystery of political marketing that sets a big portion of the stage for 2016.