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The Influence of Data on Presidential Elections

03/12/2015 03:29 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

Presidential elections have an interesting effect on the advertising industry. Much like the effect of a stock market boom on the real estate market, presidential elections are well known for raising and spending significant amounts of money to let people know who to vote for. According to the FEC, $7 billion was spent on the 2012 presidential electoral campaigns. Recent figures indicate that the 2012 election was the most expensive in history. Of the total sum raised by candidates, over $500 million was put towards political campaign ads. As you can imagine, the stakes are high for an industry that is tasked with ensuring an entire nation is aware of who is running. At the same time, perhaps a lesser-known area of spending is playing a larger-than-ever role in promoting contenders for the spot of Chief Executive. Big data has surfaced as a key to crafting a solid campaign and predicting electoral results. Now, more than ever, data garnered through social and comprehensive means has become the centerpiece of a successful run for office.

In the 21st century, new techniques for promoting a candidate have been constructed following the introduction of social media. These methods mainly rest on adapting to a changing electorate who spends a large portion of its time connected to the Internet. An important factor in the 2008 Presidential elections, "social data" was a term used to represent the information generated from social networking usage. A focus on collecting and analyzing public information resulted in the creation of "big data," which was widely used by President Obama to strategically plan his run. In the upcoming elections, a mix of both social and big data will be vital in determining who the next President will be.

A fabled feature of social media is its potential for providing users a voice. This voice carries with it the ability to influence others, whether it is directed towards friends or towards the public. In 2008, people flocked towards nascent social networks such as Twitter to voice their opinion and their desire for change. For example, 10 million tweets were sent during the presidential debates. The plethora of discourse on social channels motivated people who otherwise would not have paid attention to participate and cast their vote in favor of their preferred candidate.

On the other hand, 2012 showcased the power of big data analytics. Campaigns were created through the scrupulous examination of public perception. As Obama's campaign manager Jim Messina put it, "We were going to put an analytics team inside of us to study us the entire time to make sure we were being smart about things." Furthermore, Dan Wagner, the Chief Analytics Officer for Obama's re-election campaign, remarked that the process was "data-driven" whereby numbers essentially determined virtually every decision they made, whether it be "about TV or the communications strategy." Over 100 analytics staffers were hired to collect and interpret the slew of data and focus on forming the best strategy for the President.

The 2012 election was historic from many points of view. Most importantly, the use of big data was decidedly a game changer, which will continue to play an ever-increasing role in political elections to come. This paradigm shift in how campaigns are run will have many consequences on the political field. It will allow analysts to view how a candidate is performing on a real-time basis and will provide data to predict with great accuracy who will win the elections. This is most clearly indicated by Nate Silver's correct prediction in 2012 that there was a 90 percent chance Obama would come out victorious in the Electoral College. Once again, Silver, who is a renowned statistician and New York Times blogger, successfully predicted a political outcome by using his "523 model" -- a statistical analysis of various polls that take into account factors like economic data and state-by-state demographic fundamentals -- which is seen by many as somewhat of a "crystal ball." This example goes to show how smart data analysis is becoming and how it is ushering a new set of methodologies to foretell electoral results.

In 2016, big data and social data will have to merge in order to maximize the potential of both channels. What big data lacks in terms of understanding public engagement and the influence some people have on others, social data makes up for. The best example of a case where social and big data have worked together in the favor of a certain candidate is when looking at online presidential ads. There is a good chance that you have been the recipient of such ads. This tends to occur after having visited a candidate's website, and results in banner ads occasionally popping up when browsing the web. Although it seems simple, the process behind receiving such an ad is often complex, as it involves targeting advertisements towards specific groups of people -- this data is not always readily available. In addition to keeping track of the amount of clicks on a contender's website, analysts have to take into account many other factors, such as location data, and social interaction to paint a full picture of a voter.

In the end, following the 2008 and 2012 United States Presidential elections, the political playing field has completely changed and adapted to a world that is dominated by information. While 2008 was influenced by the birth of social networks, 2012 was seen as a year when data became essential to running a successful campaign. With both channels growing in importance, Presidential contenders will have to place a large emphasis on data-analysis to lead solid campaigns. In the near future, the 2016 election will likely be the year when data takes the center stage and becomes a force to be reckoned with.