As the 2012 US election cycle picks up steam, observers are closely watching how social media will be utilized by campaigns in races at every level – not only to increase voter engagement online, but have a defined and attributable impact on the outcome of November’s contest.

Unfortunately, mainstream media continues to widely focus on vanity metrics such as the number of Twitter followers a candidate has, how many views a YouTube video has earned or how active a particular hashtag is.  And of course, journalists continue to search high and low for the next piece of content to “go viral”. 

But as the social media industry continues to mature, so too does the level of sophistication in which campaigns and organizations apply social media tools and techniques.  Campaigns are moving away from merely having a social media presence to leveraging social activity to inform and fuel campaign machines.   While the technological strategies continue to develop, one thing is already clear: the political battleground of 2012 will look significantly different than it did in 2008.  In fact, the landscape has even shifted from the 2010 mid-term election period. 

President Barack Obama’s chief strategist David Axelrod made this very point in a December Bloomberg View luncheon, by stating:  “The things we did in 2008 in many ways were prehistoric by contemporary standards.”  Both the Democrats and the Republicans realize the race for the White House will be tight; and there is every indication that both Parties intend to heavily utilize technology in general and social media specifically in unique ways in an effort to create a competitive advantage. 

As the campaign organizations on both sides continue to take shape, one of the key differences from 2008 that has already emerged is the strong focus on big data. Definitions vary, but “big data” in a general sense refers to massive quantities (think terabytes) of data from hundreds or even thousands of varied online and offline sources. 

Within the social media world, technological advances in the big data space now allow organizations to leverage big data analytics – the collection and analysis of millions of actions, clicks, conversations, likes, follows, views and shares that happen every moment of every day on the Internet – to inform their strategies.    Online marketers have been developing these techniques for years. 

Corporations, startups, government, financial institutions, non-profits, research facilities – organizations across multiple industries are now identifying new ways to sift through and analyze the substantial amount of information gathered in real-time. 

For the 2012 election cycle, we can now add political campaigns to that growing list.    In fact, while the teams involved are understandably keeping their cards close to their chest, there is ample evidence that the Democratic and GOP senior campaign leadership both understand that having immediate access to critical data can assist with decision making and the allocation of scare resources for maximum impact. 

For their part, the Obama campaign is focusing significant attention and resources towards data management.  In a series of telling job postings this summer, Obama For America put out the call for data mining and predictive modeling analysts, appealing to the startup community, private sector and data managers within their own Party.  One particular job description stated that successful candidates would assist in developing statistical and predictive models to assist in fundraising,  digital media and other areas of the campaign. 

The Obama For America analytics department describes itself as a “multidisciplinary team of statisticians, mathematicians, software developers, general analysts and organizers” whose primary focus is to manage internal campaign data to “guide election strategy and develop quantitative, actionable insights that drive our decision- making”.   One tech publication opined that the Obama campaign was committed to building one of the” most innovative internal data operations ever for a political campaign.”

Not to be outdone, the Republicans are also gearing up to match the Democrats in what one observer called the “data arms race”.  The Republicans have previously shown mastery for offline data collection, culminating in a sophisticated GOTV program in 2004, which many believe was the key to President George W. Bush’s re-election.  This summer, the Republican National Committee recently farmed their central database out to a third-party provider, which will allow the RNC to merge their data with hundreds of like-minded groups and organizations, pooling information on donors, supporters and volunteers on a variety of issues. 

If successful in securing the Republican Presidential nomination, former Governor Mitt Romney has demonstrated that his team has long understood the importance of data aggregation and analysis on the campaign trail.  Romney was working with data analysts as early as 2002.  In an interview with ClickZ, Alex Lundry, VP and research director at TargetPoint Consulting, and a long-time consultant for Romney stated:  “Romney's people understand data; they understand data-driven campaigns.”

The product of such an approach has already begun to manifest itself.  Back in April of last year, Obama For America launched the “Are You In?” campaign, which focused heavily on promoting a Facebook application that supporters could add to their profile to show their commitment to the re-election campaign effort and to offer tools for volunteers to help spread the word online and offline. 

But what the application also did was request permission to access your location, name, picture, gender, list of friends and other information that would be valuable to the campaign team.   As of this writing, the Facebook application has 90,000 monthly users – users who have essentially indicated their interest in becoming active on the campaign trail to some degree.  Thanks to the application, the Obama campaign knows who they are and (more importantly) who is in their network.  Not a bad starting point.

The OFA Facebook application is just one of many examples where data that is commonly collected by social networks like Facebook is then applied for political purposes.  This type of data mining is becoming a regular analytic feature to provide insight on the 2012 election.  Just a few weeks ago, political news outlet Politico teamed up with Facebook to examine voter sentiment leading up to the South Carolina GOP primary by examining data streams from local voters on Facebook in search of mentions for each of the candidates. 

Another company, Wisdom, is allowing free access to their “social intelligence app” for anyone to mine the contextual data of the fans of various Facebook Pages.  In a recent news article, Wisdom was able to list the top interests for the fans of each of the leading candidates.  Based on that research, it turns out Ron Paul supporters tend to also like The Beatles and Facebook users who support Barack Obama often also like Michael Jackson.  

These multiple layers of personal information are supremely helpful in building a better understanding of your supporter base and what motivates them.  This has two immediate benefits.  First, the data can help inform future microtargeted ads and persuasion campaigns, which specifically speak to varying types of potential voters or supporters. Rather than just building an e-mail list, combing data from a variety of available sources can allow a campaign to segment a given list down to very specific qualifiers: university educated women between the ages of 30-45 with children who support public education, for example. 

But it is not just communicating with potential voters.   Combining any and all available information will also assist in recruiting the volunteers to knock on doors, raise money and communicate to their personal networks on behalf of the potential candidate.  To activate these targets effectively, it is helpful to have as much information on what motivates them to become active.

Finally, big data infrastructure also allows campaigns to collect and analyze information from the ground, from the Internet and from their databases to have a more fulsome snapshot of how the campaign is progressing – to an extent that was not available even a few years ago.  Strategists now have access to mountains of information on their supporters, target audience and even opponents they can utilize to guide their decisions.    

Even though it is still in the initial stages, the assumed trajectory and ultimate goal is to marry online social data with offline voter profiles.   While this is still a number of election cycles away, the move from merely acquiring likes, views and shares to capturing and analyzing the behind those social profiles definitely advances campaigns towards realizing that goal.   

In 2012, expect big data to be a big factor in the results on election night.


Brett Bell is the Principal of Grassroots Online ( With over 15 years of real campaigning experience, he was one of the early Canadian advocates for the powerful potential of social media and online engagement in the world of politics and advocacy campaigning. He can be reached at


Tags: Are You In?, Election 2012, Mitt Romney, Obama, Obama for America, Rnc