When the soft-spoken political consultant tells you just how much he keeps an eye you, somehow it doesn’t feel nearly as creepy as it should. More like Santa Claus than Big Brother.
Did Team Obama see you when you were sleeping, and know when you were awake? Well, it at least knew when you were watching TV. Among the many data sources mined and analyzed by the Obama campaign were cable television stats collected from 20 million set-top boxes in 8 million homes. Viewing habits were matched with voter registration data and reports from campaign canvassers to fine tune targeted messages to households and maximize advertising dollars.
The data, says Jim Margolis, “tell us things like, ‘Gee, we have a lot of people who are watching The Dating Game on TVLand reruns from 30 years ago that we want to talk to.’”
Margolis ’78, a senior partner in the Washington, D.C., consulting firm GMMB, twice helped steer Barack Obama to victory while serving as an inner-circle senior advisor on media strategy and advertising. His clients include a large roster of Democratic senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Analyzing voter data for better targeting has long been a part of political campaigns. In the past, candidates used zip code-sorted demographic data and analyses of the ethnicity of a last name to tailor messages. These days the instruments are not nearly as blunt.
Through use of data mining, computer modeling, analytics, and emerging technology, the Obama campaign was able to pull data and push messages at micro and macro levels through low- and high-tech means. These stats then informed decisions on everything from what message to use with those Dating Game watchers to which states were worth contesting.
In some markets, the campaign had the ability to present different ads to different homes during the same television show. Such precision allowed the Obama campaign—which expected to be heavily outspent by Republican challenger Mitt Romney and political action committees supporting him—to use its resources more efficiently. It’s also what convinced the campaign to continue its efforts in Florida, even though many observers on both sides felt the state was falling toward Romney.
But Margolis cautions against too much emphasis on the “shiny new object” of analytics and technology. The heart of the victory, he says, was the candidate and his message—not the campaign tactics. He also worries about the fracturing of American society, a sentiment he admits is sometimes hard to square with the slicing and dicing of data and messaging that helped get his candidate elected.
“My fear about what’s happening every day is that we are becoming more and more narrowly focused to our own sources of information,” he says. “We go to FOX for our news if we’re conservative, MSNBC if we’re liberal. We go to certain websites that reinforce the same perspectives that we already own.”
Decades ago, he adds, with just three television networks, “there was a common sense of the news and what reality was. We might have had different beliefs, but at least there was a conversation taking place among most Americans around the water cooler that started with the same inputs.”
One way Margolis hopes to bridge this divide is through his work with a Republican strategist, Mark McKinnon, to identify areas of common purpose surrounding the plight of children. The two have helped the organization Next Generation launch Too Small to Fail, a bipartisan, national initiative to put children at the center of the national agenda. The team created a controversial TV commercial reminiscent of a typical hard-hitting political ad. In it, a boy jumps into a swimming pool and looks as though he’s about to drown. “Can’t watch one child in danger? You do it every day,” the ad’s caption reads.
“Kids don’t have many voices in Washington,” Margolis says. “Kids don’t vote.”
Jeff Hagan ’86 is the editor of this magazine.