Four veteran digital campaign operatives were on hand at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) this morning to discuss why "Big Data Will Choose the Next U.S. President." But the actual takeaway of the panel was just the opposite: For all the attention that goes to things like microtargeting and digital operations, it's far more important to be running a candidate people like on a message people find compelling.
"Data provides the ability to put the most relevant message in front of someone," said J.C. Medici, director of politics and advocacy at the marketing firm Rocket Fuel. "If you have campaigns that have a strong message, data can help leverage and be the amplification tool…But it's not the data itself, it's data being used to deliver the message."
"At the end of the day," agreed Keegan Goudiss of Revolution Messaging and the Bernie Sanders campaign, "what you're saying in the race is the most important part."
This might seem to run against the modern wisdom. After all, the media drained an ocean of ink covering President Obama's digital-first campaign in 2008. "How Obama's data crunchers helped him win," read a typical headline on the subject, that one from CNN. "Exclusive: How Democrats Won The Data War In 2008," read another, from The Atlantic. And it's true that the presidential hopeful (and his army of staffers and campaign volunteers) brought data into the political realm at a level of sophistication the world had never before seen.
But while using data well can be the difference between winning and losing in a relatively close race—and make no mistake about it, in a country that's roughly evenly divided along loose party lines, national races are decided on the margins—not even the best data operation can overcome the weakness of a candidate whose personality and ideas just don't resonate with voters.
One need only look to the now-defunct Jeb Bush campaign to see that's true. Bush's team had everything going for it: resources, experience, name recognition. It's a safe bet his staff had put together a plan to deploy data to reach and turn out voters that would have at least rivaled the Obama for America operation that came before.
But Jeb was the wrong man for the wrong time. The day Donald Trump entered the race, though none of us realized it then, was the day the Bush campaign's long, slow death began. In the second week of August, he was getting 10 percent according to the RealClearPolitics primary polling average; his vote share would never be that high again. At this moment of national frustration, soft-spoken competence was taken as weakness, and no amount of door knocking or TV ads or Facebook memes or quirky campaign-trail Snapchat vids was going to change that.
As Medici put it at the panel this morning: "It doesn't matter how much data you have [if you don't] have the right candidate."
"I'll share the magic formula for success," Goudiss said when asked how the Sanders camp pulled off its shocking win in Michigan last week. "And that is that we have an authentic candidate who's speaking about issues he cares greatly about."