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Politics & Policy

Why Would Any Candidate Forsake a Data-Driven Turnout Operation?

Tuesday, Donald Trump announced he won’t be using “the kind of sophisticated data operation that was a centerpiece of Barack Obama’s winning White House runs.”

“I’ve always felt it was overrated,” Trump said. “Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine. And I think the same is true with me.”

Someone tell me – what’s the downside of having a sophisticated data operation to identify, target, persuade and mobilize voters? The Democrats’ analysis of what went right for them in 2008 concluded that registered voters contacted by the member groups of Catalyst, their primary data analysis company, turned out at a rate of 74.6 percent; the voters who weren’t turned out in proportions roughly equivalent to the national average — about 60.4 percent.

Then in 2012, when the traditional turnout models forecast a Romney win, the Obama campaign went out and did it again. They went out and found unregistered voters who would be likely to vote for them and got them registered and mobilized:

“Most striking is the net gain numbers, which factor in newly registered voters, party switchers and removes people who are no longer voters in Florida. Since January, the Florida Democratic Party has had a net gain of 415,580 voters, while the Republican Party of Florida has only gained 169,841. This shows that the gap between Democrats and Republicans in Florida has grown by 245,739 voters this year alone.”

A thorough demographic breakdown of the new Florida voters registered through Sept. 30 provided to the Huffington Post showed that 149,562, or 18.6 percent of this year’s new registrants are African-American. That rate runs ahead of the US Census’ 2006 estimation that African Americans represent 15.8 percent of Florida’s population — perhaps revealing that the Obama campaign’s attempt to register black voters at historic, potentially game-changing rates might have paid some dividends.

Then throughout the fall campaign they knew exactly where they stood in just about every demographic imaginable: 

The analytics team used four streams of polling data to build a detailed picture of voters in key states. In the past month, said one official, the analytics team had polling data from about 29,000 people in Ohio alone — a whopping sample that composed nearly half of 1% of all voters there — allowing for deep dives into exactly where each demographic and regional group was trending at any given moment. This was a huge advantage: when polls started to slip after the first debate, they could check to see which voters were changing sides and which were not.

“We were much calmer than others,” said one of the officials. The polling and voter-contact data were processed and reprocessed nightly to account for every imaginable scenario. “We ran the election 66,000 times every night,” said a senior official, describing the computer simulations the campaign ran to figure out Obama’s odds of winning each swing state. “And every morning we got the spit-out — here are your chances of winning these states. And that is how we allocated resources.”

This isn’t to say a data-driven turnout operation is a magic bullet; it’s a tool. In a close race, it could be decisive, but most years it is just going to be one of many factors. But why would Donald Trump, or any other candidate not want to have this tool? Even if Trump thinks he doesn’t need it, wouldn’t any little turnout nudge be helpful for any down-ticket Republican? (Ah, there’s my mistake. Trump doesn’t care about down-ticket Republicans.)

After 2012, Republicans looked at the Obama campaign’s data-driven turnout operation and said, “we need one of those.” Why are they choosing to un-learn one of the big lessons of the most recent defeat?


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