Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

Obama's Political Moneyball Could Be The Shape Of Campaigns To Come

Democratic party volunteer Matt Lattanzi worked door to door for the Obama campaign while canvassing in a Youngstown, Ohio, apartment building on Oct. 28.
John Moore
Getty Images
Democratic party volunteer Matt Lattanzi worked door to door for the Obama campaign while canvassing in a Youngstown, Ohio, apartment building on Oct. 28.

A good deal of credit for President Obama's re-election has gone to his campaign's sophistication at interpreting data about potential voters and its use of behavioral research to get supporters to actually vote.

And because success in politics spawns imitators, the approach could well shape how future campaigns are run.

Remember, Republican strategist Karl Rove's and George W. Bush's campaigns of the 2000s get credit for early mining of consumer data. Obama's campaign, however, is credited with taking the data analysis to the next level, refining the process campaigns have used to score potential voters on their likelihood to turn out for a particular candidate on Election Day in much the same way credit issuers score consumers on their likeliness to repay debts.

This meant mining consumer data and other information from millions of would-be voters to find patterns that indicated political leanings and how persuadable they might be.

The election results, in which Obama captured 332 electoral votes and virtually every competitive swing state, "testify to many dramatic changes, particularly demographic and ideological ones, that mark life in Obama's America," wrote Sasha Issenberg in an article in Slate. "But within the practice of politics, no shift seems more dramatic than the role reversal between the two parties on campaigning competence," wrote Issenberg, whose book, The Victory Lab was required reading this election cycle for its explanation of how social science is changing elections.

"Today, there is only one direction in which envy can and should be directed: Democrats have proved themselves better — more disciplined, rigorous, serious, and forward-looking — at nearly every aspect of the project of winning elections," wrote Issenberg.

What exactly did the Obama campaign do? Using techniques gleaned from social science experiments aimed at determining how to get occasional voters to the polls, it targeted Obama backers with weak voting habits who were most likely to vote with enough persuasion.

And there were the reported 66,000 daily computer simulations the campaign ran to model Election Day variables to help it decide where to expend more time and money.

"We had to win this on the micro stuff," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said at a post-election conference of political consultants, according to Buzzfeed.

It's not like the campaign of Republican Mitt Romney wasn't also using data and modern political science tools to try to maximize turnout for its candidate. It just seemed to have less success.

The frustrations Republicans had in getting out their vote on Nov. 6 was symbolized by the Election Day crash of Project Orca, the GOP's digital voter turnout and monitoring system.

While it's impossible to quantify how much data-driven and social-science approach accounts for the president's success, Obama's strong showing surprised many political observers, and certainly many in Romney's presidential campaign. They had assumed Obama couldn't match, let alone exceed, his strong 2008 showing with key parts of his coalition, especially African-Americans and young voters. But he did.

"I think the broader challenge is incorporating the science into the culture of the Republican campaign professionals. I know that it's been an uphill battle at times even within the Democratic Party," said John Sides, a political scientist at George Washington University and a lead contributor to The Monkey Cage blog, in an interview. "Grizzled consultants who have done this for years don't like being told by nerds that their stuff doesn't work. It's going to take some explicit investment by GOP activists and leaders to begin to transform how the party conceives of voter mobilization and persuasion."

But James Thurber, director of American University's Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, said it's going to take more than political moneyball for Republicans to be competitive in national elections going forward.

"I think it's going to take them a long time to catch up because they're basically the Confederate South and the Plains states, if you look at the map," said Thurber. "They're basically white males and evangelical Christians. They've got to reach out. It's not just statistics. It's reaching out with the right policies as well as message to the future of America."

Issenberg and other journalists in Slate, Time, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times all have noted the data-driven and messaging work done in the Obama campaign's back office to figure out where the campaign should focus its resources.

But a great deal of how the Obama campaign prepared its get-out-the-vote effort was more traditional, and also showed the benefits of incumbency.

Obama's operation never closed many of its campaign offices in battleground states after 2008, for instance. It also had significantly more of them than Romney. That allowed Obama's campaign to remain a neighborhood presence and develop relations in critical precincts and counties.

But there was also the political equivalent of moneyball: the use of data to focus on which fair-weather or first-time voters to target. And Issenberg says the Democrats' greater embrace of techniques tested by social scientists gives the party a significant and maybe durable advantage over Republicans.

"The gap between the sides may be too large for mere enthusiasm to close it anytime soon," he writes.

Not all Republican political consultants and political scientists are panicking. They acknowledge that Obama's campaign operation had a few steps on Romney's, but they see the advantage as strictly temporary.

"The Republican Party will not have a difficult time catching up ... if they make some systematic changes," said Cyrus Krohn, who once headed the Republican National Committee's e-campaign efforts and is co-founder of Crowdverb, a consulting firm for political campaigns and corporations.

Krohn advised that after taking some time to recover from the bruising campaign, Republicans make the kind of improvements to their use of technology and data that will at the very least put them at parity with Democrats. The GOP must start, he said, even before it fully sorts out the inevitable leadership changes that come after losing a presidential election.

Some political scientists shared Krohn's view that it wouldn't be long before Republicans were at parity or beyond, at least on the technology front.

"I'm less convinced than Issenberg and others that Democratic techniques are all that transformative and made a big difference in the election," said Philip Klinkner, a political scientist at Hamilton College, in an email interview.

"Most of these ideas are out there in the public realm, and Republicans can read journal articles," he said. "There are plenty of right-leaning academics who do this kind of stuff."

And after the nation's most expensive presidential race, Klinkner noted: "Money talks. I'm sure there are plenty of otherwise lefty academics who will work for GOP groups in return for nice consulting fees or access to good data."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.