Big Data, Elections and the Law – Does Big Data Matter in Elections?


At least people with money seem to think so – people inside the both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, and people working independently of the parties.

The 2012 Election

The success of the 2012 Obama re-election campaign has been attributed, at least in part, to the campaign’s use of Big Data.  An overview of the campaign’s Big Data operation can be found herehere and especially here.

Investment in Democratic data efforts, and the influence of interested and wealthy individuals, is ongoing.  According to Datanami:

A lot has been written about the data savvy of President Obama’s re-election campaign and how it changed the game from gut-level guesswork to data-driven campaigning. Much of the direction of this effort was reportedly originally based on the counsel of Google’s Eric Schmidt, who it was revealed this week has made an investment to keep the Obama Campaign’s analytics group, previously known as “the Cave,” together.

Republican Efforts

After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee publicly acknowledged the edge that President Obama’s reelection campaign gained from its use of Big Data.

Some wondered how the Republicans could overcome the perceived Republican technology deficit. But the Republican Party began investing in Big Data before the 2012 election.

For example, there’s Data Trust. The Huffington Post tells us that Data Trust is a:

…private-sector company set up to house and maintain the RNC’s voter file while avoiding campaign finance rules that apply to federal committees….

Data Trust was formed in 2011. In a January 16, 2014 article, National Review Online  said that Data Trust was “created in 2011 to shoulder the cost of building and managing the GOP’s voter file” and is “effectively a subsidiary of the RNC.”

The Themis database is a Big Data effort of certain Republican Party supporters. According to Reuters:

People with direct knowledge of the group as well as political technology industry veterans say it is backed by the Koch brothers, although their names do not appear on an annual regulatory filing and Koch Industries spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.

i360 is a for-profit business that describes itself as – “the leading data and technology resource for the pro-free-market political and advocacy community.” There is, reportedly, a relationship between Themis and i360, but it isn’t clear to us what that relationship is. On the other hand, there is a clear relationship between i360 and Data Trust. It’s clear because i360 announced it in this press release.

Why It Matters


Evidently, a Big Data makes campaign spending more efficient.  Using your campaign funds more efficiently gives you an advantage over less efficient campaigns. You get more votes for each dollar. 

A general description of how this is supposed to work can be found here, in a blog post summarizing Political Campaigns and Big Data, which is an article that appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The essential thing is that campaigns use data to “target individual voters” and thereby “concentrate their resources where they will be most effective.” Similar discussions here and here, among many other places.

In the past, some financially disadvantaged campaigns compensated by using comparatively larger groups of volunteer campaign workers. But, volunteers guided by Big Data are more effective than less data-focused volunteers.  So money wins again.

Finally, if Big Data campaigns are more effective in targeting voters, it seems reasonable to conclude that Big Data campaigns can more effectively target campaign contributors.  The rich get richer.

Not Everyone Agrees

After the 2014, Big Data took some hits.  In How Election 2014 humbled the high priests of American politics, the Christian Science Monitor said:

Well, the political class bet big on big data this fall, and it didn’t turn out so hot.

The title of a The Wall Street Journal article by Patrick O’Connor and Dante Chinni tells us: Results Show Limits of Big Data.

But the Big Data investment continues.

Campaign Law Issues 

The investment of money in Big Data isn’t the only indication of the importance of Big Data in politics.  The collection and use of Big Data in elections has also now become the subject of election law disputes.   

In this complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission before the 2014 election, there are allegations of wrongdoing that involve i360, Data Trust, Themis and others. The allegations relate directly to the manner in which campaign data is collected and shared.

After the election we had another data-related issue.  As described in a CNN report:

Republicans and outside groups used anonymous Twitter accounts to share internal polling data ahead of the midterm elections, CNN has learned, a practice that raises questions about whether they violated campaign finance laws that prohibit coordination.

The Twitter accounts were hidden in plain sight. The profiles were publicly available but meaningless without knowledge of how to find them and decode the information, according to a source with knowledge of the activities.

Other Legal Issues?

We’re talking about elections here.  The winners make the law.


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