‘Data election’ holds danger for Obama


The 2012 US presidential election is already being called the ‘data election’, thanks to president Barack Obama’s impressive digital operation. But he must use voters’ details sensitively to avoid alienating prospective supporters.

His re-election campaign is developing a huge central database designed to send targeted messages to get out the vote. Using data collected from users of the Obama for America Facebook page and other social media sources, he will know more about his voters than any candidate in history, and can appeal to them on that personal basis.

Obama clearly has a good track record in digital marketing. The grassroots funding campaign that won him the presidency in 2008 was light years ahead of his opponents’. He raised $750 million with the help of donations from ordinary members of the public persuaded to chip in through social media, as well as the traditional army of volunteers who took to the phones.

Facebook and other online channels will be more important this year, as being the incumbent he won’t mobilise as many volunteers fired up by the prospect of beating the establishment. But Obama needs to be careful about how he targets voters. If supporters sign up unaware of how their data might be used, they might be shocked when they find out.

That would be a sure way of turning off those not already disillusioned with the promises of hope and change that rang so loudly through the 2008 campaign, but on which many of his supporters say he has failed to deliver.

Personal data is always a sensitive subject and has been the cause of many a PR misstep in the US, where citizens guard their civil rights jealously. Recent controversies about how Apple and Twitter access users’ email address books bear witness to that.

Most of those who express their interest in the Obama campaign via Facebook have a strong likelihood of voting for him anyway, since they are being proactive enough to seek out information. So targeting these voters alone could be potentially as damaging as it is rewarding.

And Obama’s database will largely be a self-selecting sample, with a demographic profile over-represented by young inhabitants of coastal states that the president is already likely to win at the polls. It might help him spur on a higher turnout among younger people, but he must not be complacent – it is more important to target the swing voters that don’t come to him.

Obama’s team will surely have thought of all this already. And according to data analysed by Yahoo!, the president is predicted to beat the Republican candidate by 303 electoral votes to 235.

But the president would do well to remember that past data does not always predict future performance. Anyone remember Cleggmania?

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