Can Big Data defeat Big Money in politics?

Candidates facing well-heeled opponents may have effective weapon in data analytics

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There's a reason why elected politicians seem to spend as much time fund-raising as governing (or misgoverning): Politics is, and always has been, a money game.

This has never been more so than now, the era of Citizen United and Super PACs. Record amounts are being raised and spent in elections, and it's quite clear that money can buy a race.

In the recent gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin, incumbent Scott Walker easily defeated Democratic challenger Tom Barrett. He also reportedly outspent Barrett by a margin of at least 7 to 1, raising $30 million (to Barrett's $4 million) and benefiting from the huge influx of outside money from Super PACs.

Maybe Walker would have won anyway without the huge spending advantage. We'll never know. But one thing we do know is that candidates who are outgunned financially must rely on other resources to compete. Traditionally that has meant volunteers, guerrilla tactics and free media.

Slowly, though, political professionals are turning to data in order to find some kind of edge, whether it's discovering under-the-radar issues that arouse passion in voters or previously undetected connections between certain voter demographics and specific policy positions.

An interesting article posted Friday on The Huffington Post explores the topic of data analytics in the political world.

In the post, author Sam Stein focuses on Bill James, the legendary baseball statistical analysis guru whose theories single-handedly changed how many Major League franchises approach building a winning team. James's "sabermetrics" approach to baseball data-crunching created new metrics for assessing the true value of players and their impact on a team's ability to win.

But what Stein really is talking about is Big Data, information analytics and their potential to transform the election process.

However, there are obstacles slowing the adoption of data analytics in the political arena. Whereas baseball is a world in which every inning, game and season produces reams of specific data to be crunched, massaged and interpreted, politics is a bit more ephemeral.

As one of Stein's sources says:

"There aren't any good databases" in politics, said Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus, an organization devoted to studying sabermetrics. "You would need like the last 50, 100 Senate campaigns. ... You would need the full books. Like this was the money. This is what they spent it on. You have to create categories: mail, personal appearances, television ads. And then you need to break up the television ads: positive ads, negative ads. How valuable was it? How valuable is going to the local diner? How valuable is the ad that says my opponent is a nimrod? There are so many things that you would need. ...

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