By Muqbil Ahmar
It is going to be a photo finish, predict the psephologists. In this head to head, technology could play a major role, particularly Big Data, in deciding who gets to wear the crown eventually. While Trump has berated the technology, calling it “overrated,” the Hillary camp has gone all out to mine and collect data from every possible source: from voter registration and public records to social media activity. They are following up on the data-driven election strategy that Barack Obama built to great success while running for his second term. Many election analysts have credited Obama’s Big Data initiatives for his 2012 election win, saying that his tactics have set up a novel precedent for how election campaigns of the future would be run.
On one side, Hillary has stood her ground, with her campaign team developing and harnessing cutting-edge analytics to target swing voters. Trump hasn’t. While other candidates entered into arrangements and partnerships with data strategists, the sole exception had been Trump, who has instead relied heavily on his own personal appeal. He has, in fact, been critical of Big Data Analytics during his campaigns. “I’ve always felt it [Big Data] was overrated. Obama got the votes much more so than his data processing machine. And I think the same is true with me.” On the contrary, Trump has used social media and the traditional media coverage to promote himself and his opinions. Trump’s strategy of not leveraging Big Data may turn against him and put him at a disadvantage as compared to his more analytically-aware rival.
But now, in the last moments, Trump has had to eat his words. In the month of September alone, Trump paid a Big Data Analytics UK firm Cambridge Analytica $5 million to help target voters. The company has claimed that it has data on around 230 million adults in the USA and approximately 4000 “data points” on every one of them, including gym and club memberships, charity donations, and card transactions. All this is a last ditch effort to analyze the ultimate voter and his political leanings and how to make them change their minds.
In the 2012 presidential election campaign, Obama used path-breaking data analytics. First of all, he focused on swing or undecided voters. His strategy was simple: there is no point in wasting resources wooing those who have already made up their minds or are political loyalists—they would not vote favorably even in a zillion years. A core team of more than 100 data analysts ran 66,000 computer simulations every day. Analysts put together data from various sources: voter registration records, charities and donations, and public department information. In fact, third-party data was also bought (including data collected from social media).
Ironically, even when Trump has belatedly decided to go for a data-centric strategy, he has followed the trodden road—one that followed in 2012. He hasn’t taken into account that technology, particularly Big Data Analytics, has been innovating fast and moving into uncharted territories to mine and process data, making the 2012 strategies look old school. Over the past four years, private vendors and companies have developed and sharpened Big Data tools, adding Predictive Analytics, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Sentiment Analysis, and Language Processing to the potent mix to leverage the state-of-the-art technologies and expand their scope.
“Big Data techniques and data mining have hugely enhanced and expanded in scope. Machine learning is a particularly helpful in increasing the correlation between the data and its influence as there is self-learning inbuilt, so that the tool adapts and learns in every new situation. This can be applied to any situation and business,” said Shashank Dixit, CEO, Deskera, a Cloud technology firm that has recently developed its own Big Data tool.
Campaigners within both the parties agree that Democrats have a sizable lead in collection of information on voters and their smart use of those leads could be the difference, particularly if the contest goes to the wire. Clearly, Hillary Clinton has the advantage of inheriting the database that Obama built over two campaigns; however, it remains to be seen how successfully she is able to leverage it. However, there is one thing that has been established beyond doubt: the candidate with the smartest data wins.
Will Trump’s last minute effort prove sufficient or will it be a classic case of too little too late? Only time will tell, the results would anyway be out soon.
With over 10 years of experience in the field of journalism, the author is a technology evangelist and avid blogger.