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Iain Anderson: The US election suggests that micro-targeting is the key to winning 21st Century elections

Iain AndersonIain Anderson is co-founder of Cicero Group and is an expert in global political risk and economic public policy issues. He has worked for a range of Conservative policymakers. He writes in a personal capacity. Follow Iain on Twitter.

So the good 'ol Karl Rove strategy worked well in 2012 - for the Democrats. His maxim, that you just need to get out 50.1 per cent of America for your side, comes immediately to mind when you look at the re-election of Barack Obama. As I write, Obama stands at 50.4 of the national poll.

I admit it's brilliant. But you'd call me a "Blue Dog" Democrat anyway. A Tory in the UK and Democrat in the US. I supported Obama. But what really impresses me is the Obama machine - in 2008, and even more so in 2012. It worked, whereas the candidate sometimes didn't.

Of course Mitt Romney's off the cuff dismissal of the "47 per cent" was never going to help build any electoral "coalition" to take him to 50.1 per cent. But this campaign has still unleashed "micro-targeting" techniques that reached into Middle America and grabbed voters by the heart as much as the head.

The campaign machine in the US can now tell if you are that 40 year old male veteran with two kids and a holiday home in Florida. It knows if you shop at Walmart and you are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Oh, and it doesn't care anymore if you are a registered Dem or a GOPer. It analyses your habits and inclinations fresh each poll around - and looks to get to the policies and ideas that appeal to you.

The Dems really trumped the GOP on this effort. This article from Slate here really points to the insitutional problems the right in America has faced.

Boiled down to its very essence, this is an issue of modernisation vs tradition. Republican organisations are very much caught up in the tradition of how elections used to be run: focusing on rallying the base, and less so on finding ways to drive independents to the polls as well. Ring a bell in the UK?

Take, for instance, the Conservative Coalition, which as their main target to drive voters to the polls acquired memberships lists from megachurches and other like-minded allies. This, while effective for rallying the base, may not be so effective for finding those people in the electorate who may be leaning towards voting for you but are unsure or still on the fence.

So the essence of the idea is called “look-alike modeling”. The idea is to use the data which is captured to create statistically significant voter "profiles" within a polling district which can then be used to target similar voters - locally and nationally - where there is less information about them. According to my conversations with campaigners it seems the Republicans didn't focus on that data acquisition - spending more of their fundraising on traditional targeting.  

And according to Slate: "In fact, when it comes to the use of voter data and analytics, the two sides appear to be as unmatched as they have ever been on a specific electioneering tactic in the modern campaign era. No party ever has ever had such a durable structural advantage over the other on polling, making television ads, or fundraising, for example. And the reason may be that the most important developments in how to analyze voter behavior has not emerged from within the political profession."

Since I arrived in the US last week - albeit in the uncertain political aftermath of Hurricane Sandy - the Democrats' early voting machine has been in overdrive. Despite the weather - driven by micro targetting - it worked like a dream.

And that micro targeting didn't just work in districts and precincts - it also applied to the TV studio. The most reliable polls weren't national but local.

As the New York Times put it this week - "This was the year the meta-analyst shoved aside the old-school pundit"

Are there any lessons for the UK political machine? Lots.

In the 1980s the British Conservatives were a model of the latest "direct mail" techniques. Of course that is a world away from the robo calling, micro targetting that we have seen in the US in 2012. In the UK in 2015, let's abandon poster sites and newspaper ads. The party needs to invest in those latest micro targetting techniques.

So as I arrived back on the plane from Washington to London today - I return with a sense of the need for the British political machine to wake up and smell the coffee on 21st century campaigning. Perhaps it's time for the Conservatives "Team 2015" to get on a plane to Washington and take a look - at Democrats in particular.

Now - for that coffee.


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