Will US-style campaign technology provide the winning edge in 2015?

May 22, 2014

The news that Jim Messina and David Axelrod have been hired by the Tories and Labour respectively to face off against each other in the 2015 election made waves in Westminster.

During recent US elections, the use of technology to target and turnout voters has become increasingly apparent, something both men embraced as part of the 2008 and 2012 campaigns. Sasha Issenberg’s book, The Victory Lab, explains in detail how sophisticated techniques, using data, were used across the political spectrum. But how relevant is this to the UK with a General Election on the horizon?

Targeting campaign resources where they are likely to make the greatest impact is not new, but the way that technology can help has supercharged what is possible. The role that data and analytics play in identifying voters and directing resources is growing in each election cycle and informing every aspect of strategy. Increasingly, it is possible for tech-smart campaigns to interact with voters individually, appeal to them directly, target advertisements at them, and ultimately persuade them to vote in a particular direction.

British politics is certainly not ignorant of these advances in technology, with barely a moment passing without a new poll being discussed or spun on Twitter. However, despite the hype around 2010 as a ‘digital election’, traditional forms of media were still by some distance the main element in every campaign. With the attention of British politics now turning to 2015, the question is whether UK parties can learn from the experience of their US counterparts and what can practically be applied in the next 12 months.

The Gold Standard

The 2012 Obama campaign is seen as the ‘gold standard’ of modern campaign techniques. In very simple terms, the campaign saw the integration of a huge amount of data and advanced message targeting with dynamic models that were responsive to shifts in public opinion. This technological capability drove every aspect of campaign strategy. In one example, the conversion rate of fundraising messages was increased by extensively testing variations in style, content, and the sum requested before using the most lucrative one for general release. In another, a greater awareness of ‘swing’ groups and their viewing habits altered advertising decisions to reach the target group at a lower cost. This included the placing of adverts in buses on Ohio commuting routes, a medium that would typically be ignored by Presidential campaigns. Perhaps most importantly, technology significantly improved get-out-the-vote operations, directing efforts to encourage early voting, persuade swing voters earlier in the election and encourage turnout of Obama supporters on Election Day. But all of that is easy to afford when you are spending £1 billion on the election campaign. Budgets in British elections are a fraction of the US spend so political parties here will need to be much smarter – and selective – about their use of technology.

It is self evident that there are limits on how much difference these techniques can make: they would not be able to overcome fundamental issues such as a poor candidate, terrible economic conditions or an unappealing message. Few would argue that Mitt Romney lost the election solely because of a technology or data gap between the two campaigns. However, in a parliamentary system where election results can be determined by tiny majorities in marginal constituencies, even the smallest advantage can have a huge effect on the overall outcome.

Behind the curve?

Parties in the UK have been slow to adopt technology for campaigning and, although several have tried to copy specific aspects from the US, their efforts have been piecemeal to date. A good example has been the way they have hired staff in specific areas such as digital rapid response, which are unlikely to deliver advances in the use of analytics to shape the wider nature of the campaign. Even where specific attempts to mimic the Obama campaign have been made, such as using the database used by the Obama team, parties often appear to lack the expertise or data to use it effectively.

The simple truth is that the British system of political organisation lags so far behind the States’ that replicating these techniques in their entirety is unlikely to be possible, at least in the short term. The sheer scale of infrastructure and information required means that the cost is prohibitive. The largest polls of marginal constituencies occur infrequently whereas the Obama campaign could rely on nightly polls of 10,000 people in swing states. New techniques being developed in the US are beginning to make conventional polling redundant. Similarly, the Obama analytics team had 50 members, along with 50 in the technology team and around 200 in Digital overall, a much larger capacity than any UK political party can reasonably afford. Quite simply, the UK does not have the money to compete, and there are numerous other issues which may come in to play such as data protection, an issue experienced by German political campaigns.

What Lessons for the UK?

So what can we learn? Undoubtedly, even taking some small lessons from advances in the US would be beneficial, especially related to campaign targeting and operations. The most obvious steps in this direction are already occurring, including increasing mining for electorally useful data. Combining this data with other available sources, and using it to try to increase turnout and contact rates may not be exciting, but it will be far better than the ad-hoc constituency-led approaches that have been used in the past. The need to concentrate resources – from foot soldiers canvassing on the ground to targeted mailshots from the centre – is even more relevant at a time when all parties have fewer members and activists than in the past.

Ultimately, the UK elections of 2015 – and even 2020 – will not be overrun by ‘Obama style’ techniques that excite commentators, but we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. There are signs that there are smaller advances being made and, with the next General Election expected to be close, they might just make the difference between winning and losing.

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