Think Data Was Crucial in 2012 Election? Wait Until 2016

Digital is forever infused in politics

The 2012 election and big data are quickly becoming synonymous as the post-mortems and "How Obama Won" stories are published in the wake of the presidential contest. Speaking at Business Insider's Ignition conference in New York this afternoon, Patrick Ruffini, president of Engage DC, and Blue State Digital CEO Thomas Gensemer weighed in on digital's role in the recent election cycle and the challenges that face the GOP in the data race for 2016.

The incumbent advantage was very real in 2012—especially when it came to implementing technology and organizing, Gensemer told the audience. "The biggest shift for democrats in this election was that we didn't have to deal with the primary," he said, noting that the general election focus allowed the Obama campaign to open up a series of field offices and digital infrastructures in swing states like Pennsylvania months before the Romney campaign. 

While Gensemer noted the Obama team's incumbent advantage, he also credits Howard Dean and Democrats with embracing digital as early as 2004. "Data and organizing have been the DNC's priority from 2010 onward," he said.

As far as the GOP's failings, Ruffini noted that the campaign's shortcomings weren't strictly digital. Ruffini told the crowd that the Romney camp didn't use data effectively to pinpoint what was going on on the ground in key states and argued that when it came to creative, both on TV and YouTube, the campaign often failed to stand out. "There really wasn't much on the creative end that cut through the clutter," he said.

Looking ahead, Gensemer and Ruffini have similar concerns, namely that of talent. Gensemer is curious to see where key tech players like the Obama campaign's CTO, Harper Reed, will end up, noting that often key election players tend to move to the private sector. Ruffini, too, worries about talent on the Republican side (he penned a recent Atlantic article on the subject), referring to the acquisition of talented technical skill "a critical infrastructure problem to solve." 

There's no doubting that this election will be forever branded with digital's influential role. Ruffini noted that here on out "in campaigns operational excellence is equated with digital excellence." Yet, while the media races to define elections by the nascent technologies that surface during the campaign cycle, Ruffini notes that it's usually not until the next election that breakout technology matures and really shines. "People called 2008 the social media election, but in reality 2012 was the real social media election, Ruffini said. "Data is the storyline from this election, but we'll see that 2016 will probably be the first real data election."