A quick look into my wallet found membership cards for Panera Bread, The Red Cross, Shell Gasoline, Barnes & Noble, AAA, Best Buy’s Geek Squad, CVS, and Harris Teeter. That’s a lot of cards. But it’s also a lot of data.
Each of these little plastic rectangles carries a set of data about me: my name, my age, my address, my email, and a few other demographic identifiers. Taken individually, these cards aren’t very impressive. They sit in my wallet all day, and only see the light of day about once or twice a week. But when they’re aggregated and analyzed by big data corporations and political campaigns, my membership cards take on much larger implications.
The article about electronic political advertising for Thursday explains that corporate big data is increasingly overtaking the political arena. Data from cards like the ones in my wallet are pooled with public data and personal online activity to create hypertargeted political messages. According to the Kreiss and Barnard piece, companies like Yahoo are cross referencing their own massive databases with those from commercial firms like Catalist to expand their user targetablilty.
So far Democrats have been the primary reapers of big data’s rewards. The Obama campaign in both 2008 and 2012 utilized the power of massive voter databases. They pooled enormous amounts of voter data to target their advertisments and emails, and did so pretty successfully. Democrats hold the advantage. Hosts of organizations like Blue State Digital provide democrats with huge voter information databases and have been doing so for several years now. Democrats have been dominating the big data field while republicans have largely remained silent outsiders. Can the republicans catch up? I say they can. But they need to get started now, if they want to see any changes in 2016.
To look at the plausibility of a republican data catch-up, I think it’s important to look at how expansive big data collection has become. The industry isn’t limited to political parties. Companies all over the United States are scrambling to capitalize on big data and databases like the ones at Blue State Digital are becoming less democratically centralized. As more companies dive into the big data industry, it’s going to become easier for Republicans to catch up. Unlike the democrats’ data development following the Howard Dean campaign, republicans won’t have to pioneer the field. Yes, the actual application of big data analytics will be new to the party, but it won’t be new to the people who aggregate it. A model has been developed that isn’t limited to single subject platforms. Data integration like the Yahoo, Catalist cross comparison will make it easier for those new to the big data game.
This isn’t to say that the republican party’s transition to big data usage will be simple or easy. There are still massive advantages held by democrats. The cavassing data described by Nielson in Ground Wars cannot be quickly replicated by republicans. That information took multiple election cycles and campaigns to produce. But the principle for that data collection will stand as a directive for republicans. Yes, democrats hold the advantage of being first to the game, and have a behemoth of voter information- but they also paved the way for the republicans to follow. The process of collecting that data came with a large series of trials and errors that the republican party will be able to utilize and tailor their own data consumption campaign. But such replication and tailoring won’t be cheap.
Big data may be available to republicans, but it isn’t free. Companies like Retention Science are wholly devoted to data collection and don’t simply give their information away. Big data is important, but it’s not cheap. If republicans want to catch up, and catch up quickly, they’re going to have to pull a large portion of their resources towards data consumption. This resource usage requires one other component: making big data a priority.
So far I’ve written about the ways republicans could potentially catch up to the democratic party’s big data advantage. They’ll need money, quickness, and replication, but they’ll also have to decide that they want to do it. Right now big data is huge. Companies all over the world are funneling money into the industry and republicans must decide if they want to join the game or find their own way in modern politics. Big data may be working now, but it’s not the end of political development. Technologies and tactics advance, and with them so do political campaigns. Republicans have three choices: join the big data (and join it fast), ignore big data hype and stay on track, or put their money into new industries. Only time will tell which one they choose.