The Democratic Party’s 2008 presidential primary was supposed to be the coronation of Hillary Clinton. She was the most well-known candidate, had the most support from the party establishment, and had, by far, the most financial resources.
The coronation went off script. Barack Obama, a black man with an unhelpful name, won the Democratic nomination and, then, the presidential election against Republican John McCain because the Obama campaign had a lot more going for it than Obama’s eloquence and charisma: Big Data.
The Obama campaign put every potential voter into its database, along with hundreds of tidbits of personal information: age, gender, marital status, race, religion, address, occupation, income, car registrations, home value, donation history, magazine subscriptions, leisure activities, Facebook friends, and anything else they could find that seemed relevant.
Layered on top were weekly telephone surveys of thousands of potential voters that attempted to gauge each person’s likelihood of voting—and voting for Obama. These voter likelihoods were correlated statistically with personal characteristics and extrapolated to other potential voters so that the campaign’s computer software could predict how likely each person in its database was to vote and the probability that the vote would be for Obama.
This data-driven model allowed the campaign to micro-target individuals through e-mails, snail mail, personal visits, and television ads asking for donations and votes. In the crucial month of January 2008, Obama raised $36 million, a record for any politician, and nearly three times the amount raised by Clinton. After Obama secured the nomination, the fund-raising continued. For the full 2008 election campaign, Obama raised $780 million, more than twice the amount raised by his Republican opponent, John McCain. McCain didn’t have a realistic chance of winning, and he didn’t—with only 173 electoral votes to Obama’s 365.
Eight years later, Hillary Clinton made another presidential run, determined to have Big Data on her side.
This time, Big Data failed.
The Clinton campaign hired 60 mathematicians and statisticians—several from the Obama campaign—to create a software program that was named Ada in honor of a 19th-century female mathematician, Ada, Countess of Lovelace. After Clinton became the first female president, she would reveal Ada to be the secret behind her success. What a great story!
70% of the campaign budget went for television ads, and Ada determined virtually every dollar spent on these ads. The advice of experienced media advisors was neither sought or heeded.
No one really knew exactly how Ada made her decisions, but they did know that she was a powerful computer program analyzing an unimaginable amount of data. So, they trusted her. She was like an omniscient goddess. Don’t ask questions, just listen.
We do know that Ada took blue-collar voters for granted, figuring that they reliably voted Democratic, most recently for Obama, and they would do so again. With blue-collar votes as her unshakeable base, Clinton would coast to victory by persuading minorities and liberal elites to vote for her.