The 2012 presidential campaign arguably was one of the most important campaigns in recent times. The campaign pitted a status quo candidate (Barak Obama) against a candidate (Mitt Romney) who was fronting a party that was intent upon making sweeping changes to the role of government in American life. That Obama came out the victor can be attributed to many things. It is easy to suggest that the American people (or a slim majority of those who voted) rejected the Republican Party's libertarian agenda in favor of Obama, but that misses two more profound lessons of the election. The 2012 presidential campaign was the first campaign to be waged under the campaign finance rules set by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and it was the first campaign to make truly effective use of "big data." In a collection of essays edited by William J. Crotty entitled Winning the Presidency 2012, both superficial and profound elements of the campaign are examined with uneven success.
Most of the articles provide analyses that are well-known to anyone who paid moderate attention to the campaign and the post-election media pundits. The demographic shift in the American body politic and the gender gap are reviewed as is the trouble that Mitt Romney had gaining support from the Tea Party elements during the primaries and through to election day. Many of the widely covered watershed events are brought into the spotlight: Romney's refusal to release his tax filings, Obama's "you didn't build that" and Romney's "47%" remarks, Obama's poor showing in the first debate, and Chris Christy's praise of Obama for his leadership following superstorm Sandy. All of these were, of course, important conditions and events of the campaign and so it is valuable that the essays memorialize them. After all, most will be forgotten in ten years. A good, clear record will be useful, but it certainly isn't the stuff that will reveal the true historical importance of the campaign.
The first big change from previous elections that would seem to make more than a marginal difference was the ability to form "super PACs." Winning the Presidency 2012 contains an essay by Dowdle, Adkins, Sebold, and Stewart that admirably discusses the role of super PACs. In short, super PACs are political action committees that are able to raise unlimited amounts of money from donors. This money can be spent directly on election activities as long as they are not "coordinated" with the candidate's campaign. The prohibition against coordinating with the campaign quickly became meaningless and the assumption was that the candidate that was able to make use of the largest super PACs would destroy the competition. This did not turn out to be the case as Karl Rove's massive super PAC campaign chest failed to deliver results for Romney or for candidates down ticket. The lesson, however, has not been made completely clear. It is not that money will not win elections, but that is is important how that money is spent. The Republican spending strategy focused on negative media buys, and while these were not without effect, it appears that a saturation point was reached long before the money ran out. In contrast, Obama's campaign money and sympathetic super PAC money was spent building a highly "data driven" retail campaign organization, particularly targeting swing states. Though outspent by his opponents, his more sophisticated strategy was able to turn out the votes necessary to prevail, particularly in the electoral vote.
The employment of data was the crucial difference in the 2012 election. In an essay entitled, "A Transformational Political Campaign: Marketing and Candidate Messaging in the 2012 Election," Wayne P. Steger describes the Obama campaign's use of massive pools of data gathered during the 2008 election campaign and in the period leading up to 2012. These data were effectively used to segment the voting public in complex ways so that messages could be tailored to fit the audience in ways never before possible. The segmentation of the voting population went well beyond determining likely voters and persuadable voters, it was able to test messages and funding requests to ensure that the audience would be maximally receptive to the campaign's appeal. This is the future of campaigning, and we can only expect the science to be developed well beyond the techniques of 2012.
Campaigns certainly will make use of what has come to be known as "big data," i.e., data sets that are so large that traditional means for storing and processing the data are insufficient, and campaigns increasingly will make use of distributed repositories of data, possibly owned by corporations and organizations other than the campaign. Computer programs will then be written to reveal tendencies within the voting population that will allow highly effective campaign messaging. Imagine, for example, that a campaign is able to acquire the records of automobiles owned by a voting population and segregate them according to gas guzzling vs. more efficient vehicles. The campaign might then match the gas guzzlers to voters who have long daily commutes. The resultant population likely would be quite sympathetic to a message promising to keep gasoline prices low. Other similarly devised messages could be tailored to other sub-populations of voters.
That SUV owners would be gratefully receive promises to keep gas prices low would not be surprising, but other "big data" mining techniques are thought to be able to reveal extremely surprising and powerful results. A campaign that can acquire massive amounts of data about voters and can employ talented computer programmers could become extremely effective in reaching and motivating voters.
And so we can put together the two most important developments in the 2012 campaign: money and data. The disappearance of limits on campaign contributions means that large, valuable, and privately held pools of data, will be able to empower campaigns as never before. The 2012 Obama campaign was the first to reveal this dynamic. It will mark the dawn of a new era of political campaigning in which the owners and managers of our society will be able to employ their vast repositories of data to ensure that their candidates win primary competitions and ultimately general elections. Crotty's book, Winning the Presidency 2012 only hints at this future.