There's a belief that Barak Obama won two presidential elections because his team were super slick with the on-line campaigning. All those voter demographics and behavioural metrics were the thing that meant Republicans stood no chance.
So it's no surprise that this things are now all the rage here in the UK - here's Sebastian Payne drooling over one such system in the Spectator:
... an alternative is revealed with the Metis project. Headed up by four of Westminster’s sharpest minds, Metis is destined to become the largest and most sophisticated voter database ever built in the UK. The power of a 20 million strong list of voters has the potential to revolutionise campaigning.
And it will do this by enabling:
...political parties to run highly targeted campaigns, focusing on individual voters whose support is vital to win key seats. More importantly, it will spare householders the sort of unwelcome attention that was lavished on them by over-enthusiastic (or desperate) campaigners in Eastleigh’
This is great - it reminds me of the Asimov short story, "Franchise", where
...the computer Multivac selects a single person to answer a number of questions. Multivac will then use the answers and other data to determine what the results of an election would be, avoiding the need for an actual election to be held.
Such speculation aside, this sophisticated and targeted approach is only half the story of Obama's success - the other have is the activist, the boots on the ground:
So it was that Bird and his colleagues drew up plans to expand the electorate into one that could reelect Obama. In Ohio, for example, a “barber shop and beauty salon” strategy was designed to get likely Obama supporters, particularly African-Americans, to register to vote when they went for a haircut. “Faith captains” were assigned to churches to encourage parishioners to turn out for Obama. “Condo captains” were told to know every potential Obama voter in their building. The goal was like nothing seen in presidential politics: Each Obama worker would be responsible for about 50 voters in key precincts over the course of the campaign. By Election Day, that worker would know much about the lives of those 50 voters, including whether they had made it to the polls. Romney’s team talked about a ratio of thousands of voters per worker. It would prove to be a crucial difference.
Here lies the other half of the secret - the database that Obama's team used wasn't some clever piece of geodemographics spliced with a lifestyle database and based on questionnaire data. What they were using was real information about real people - and the contact was direct, personal and on the doorstep (or the barber's chair).
If UK political parties think that the solution is to echo Howard Dean's campaign, they are wrong. That campaign failed because it thought that political engagement on-line was everything - it wasn't and it isn't. If we run campaigns on the basis of manipulating large data sets the result will be a worse politics. And for those campaigners the approach probably won't work. Indeed, as Vince-Wayne Mitchell demonstrated years ago, you can make a large data set say almost anything you want it to say:
Suggests that a prima facie case exists for the suitability of astrology as a segmentation variable with the potential to combine the measurement advantages of demographics with the psychological insights of psychographics and to create segments which are measurable, substantial, exhaustive, stable over time, and relatively accessible. Tests the premise empirically using results from a Government data set, the British General Household Survey. The analyses show that astrology does have a significant, and sometimes predictable, effect on behavior in the leisure, tobacco, and drinks markets.
If political parties want to win they need to put boots on the ground, to collect data on the doorstep - for sure the sort of information in Metis will be useful, just as geodemographics have always been useful. To profile, to assist in targeting and to select geographically. These are relevant to politics but, just as is the case with regular marketing, a list of previous buyers - or previous voters - is much more responsive.
The task is to build that list - that is what Obama did. He did use a clever marketing database but applied on-line techniques to the age old method - speak to the voter, look him in the eye and ass; "will you vote for me?"