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Data specialist Stephen Dunn gives his assessment of the Tory party hire of Jim Messina

August 13th, 2013

Is it different over here compared with the US?

Jim Messina, who was chief campaign manager for Barak Obama’s 2012 election campaign, has recently been recruited to assist the Tories with their 2015 campaign. This has attracted lots of attention and comment.

Jim is known for utilising the power of “Big Data” – Massive, indivualised datasets that, allow fantastically detailed contact with voters and management of a political campaign. He is potentially a huge asset to the Tories – although if you don’t read the news carefully, you won’t have noticed that most of the time he won’t be here – He’ll be helping out remotely from the USA.

His signing-up is potentially good news for Cameron. The Tories have a distinctly patchy record of using data and IT. They’ve made a stab at this already, with their Merlin system, introduced before the 2010 election. It uses MOSAIC Consumer data, to classify people by postcode into 61 types. It is fair to say that Merlin has not been universally popular. A grizzled Tory campaigner comments
“The very mention of the word (and the system) is likely to drive even the most temperate Tory into paroxysms of spluttering uncontrolled spasms of rage at its all-round uselessness.”

Regardless, it’s clear that “Big Data” is going to be big in 2015, for all parties. It’s instructive to look at what’s the same, and what’s different, between the USA in 2012 and Britain in 2015. It might even help us work out which party is going to do it better – and how this is going to influence the GE result.

In Mike’s clip and elsewhere, you can hear Jim talk about what he learned from running Obama’s campaign. You can also read more here

Let’s have a look at some of the Key Points

Have lots of money

Jim claims that he spent a Billion dollars on Obama’s campaign. That’s a suspiciously round figure, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. With this sort of money, he was able to do all sorts of things – like poll 10,000 people every night. Scaling that Billlion for population size, at £1 = $1.55, that would be £129 million in the UK. There’s the first big difference between USA 2012 and UK 2015. He won’t have anything approaching that to spend – none of the parties will.

Have lots of Data

Jim could rate every single voter in battleground states, on a scale of 1 to 100, in
term of likeliness to vote for Obama, and also likelihood to switch vote. And he could do this sort of thing reliably – His team predicted a particular vote in Florida to within 0.05%.

Where did this data come from? From door knocking records of voter concerns, from registers of emails supporting a cause, from analysing, and from buying big expensive commercial datasets – And from having the IT expertise to tie them all together and attach the relevant information to each individual.

Does any UK party have a good base to build an operation at this level of detail? Probably not – The culture of door-to-door canvassing in all parties often explicitly discourages detailed discussion – You collect 1 data point – Party allegiance – Or maybe 2, party allegiance and strength – and you move on. And of course, we don’t have “registered” voters by party allegiance in the UK.

So, to adapt to this approach, UK parties will need 2 things – a culture change, and boots on the ground. And a good starting point will be to round up the old campaigners, and ask them everything they know, or think they know, about everyone locally – You can start with the broad brush, and then ink in the detail. It’ll work fine, as long as the old campaigners are interested enough to bother.

Individualise the Message

One of Jim’s huge databases was called Project Narwhal. And here’s what he could do “with Narwhal working in the background, every message you saw from the campaign featured just the policies you loved. Where you disagreed, you never knew.”

Here’s an instance of how this worked – A voter in Ohio contacts the Obama campaign. From her location, by ZIP code, there is no reason to believe that the voter is susceptible to a Pro-Choice message. But the Obama campaign knew that, years before, she had registered her support for a Pro-Choice cause by email. And she receives a Pro-Choice, Pro-Obama message by return.

Can you combine this sort of thing with the UK ground approach of leafleting entire neighbourhoods with identical pamphlets? I don’t know. Perhaps you can, if your activists will let you.

You still need Door Knockers

“There is a magical place that you can reach every voter: the door”
It’s still more effective to contact people by knocking on their door, than by other methods. So, once again, the ground war is vital.

Social Media – Facebook, Twitter, and the next thing

A potential voter contacted by a Facebook link, would watch a 20 second video featuring Michelle Obama. In this 20 seconds, the voter’s 5 closest Facebook friends would be identified. The voter would see a link, inviting them to send a supportive message to those friends.

And this links us to Jim’s Biggest Truth – that’s what your friends and neighbours think has the most influence. So, it’s not just the message, it’s that WHERE the message comes from is important – and if you can use social media to pass political messages via a friend, that’s good news.

By Social Media, we currently mean Facebook and Twitter. But 2015 is 2 years away – there may well be something else in the mix as well.

What does all this mean in the UK? It will be interesting to see what Jim Messina is able to achieve for the Tories. But, Jim aside, the “Big Data” approach is likely to benefit the party with better organised ground operations and more adaptable activists. That’s probably going to be Labour.

Stephen Dunn