For all the bragging on the winning side — and an explicit coveting of these methods on the losing side — there are many unanswered questions. What data, exactly, do campaigns have on voters? How exactly do they use it? What rights, if any, do voters have over this data, which may detail their online browsing habits, consumer purchases and social media footprints?
How did Mr. Obama win? The message and the candidate matter, of course; it’s easier to persuade voters if your policies are more popular and your candidate more appealing. But a modern winning campaign requires more. As Mr. Messina explained, his campaign made an “unparalleled” $100 million investment in technology, demanded “data on everything,” “measured everything” and ran 66,000 computer simulations every day. In contrast, Mitt Romney’s campaign’s data operations were lagging, buggy and nowhere as sophisticated. A senior Romney aide described the shock he experienced in seeing the Obama campaign turn out “voters they never even knew existed.” And that kind of ability matters: while Mr. Obama did win decisively, the size of his lead in four states that determined the outcome, Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado, was about 400,000 votes — or about 1.2 percent of the eligible voters.
The confluence of marketing and politics goes back a long way. A blizzard of direct mail engineered by political consultants is credited with defeating President Harry S. Truman’s national health care proposal after World War II. The new methods, however, are not just better direct mail. Noxious TV ads and slick mailers are like machetes compared with the scalpels of social-science-based big-data. The crude methods may still work to soften the ground and drown out other voices, but in the end they are still very big sticks. Sometimes they kill the patient — just ask swing-state voters about the TV ads they were bombarded with.
The scalpels, on the other hand, can be precise and effective in a quiet, un-public way. They take persuasion into a private, invisible realm. Misleading TV ads can be countered and fact-checked. A misleading message sent in just the kind of e-mail you will open or ad you will click on remains hidden from challenge by the other campaign or the media. Or someone who visits evangelical Web sites might be carefully shielded from messages about gay rights, and someone who has hostile views toward environmentalism may receive messages stroking that sentiment even if the broader campaign woos the green vote elsewhere.