The collection of data in presidential politics began in 1896 with the Bryan campaign

tags: Obama, William Jennings Bryan

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.

In 2008 and again in 2012, the Obama campaign earned a reputation as being on the cutting edge of data. And in many ways it was justified. By putting in motion a “grand technology experiment,” his presidential campaign was able to gather deep data on individual voters within a household for the first time. That information then fed and refined a massive database that served a fairly traditional function: Call voters and knock on their doors to convince them to turn out on election day.

But data-driven politics didn’t start with Barack Obama. University of North Carolina professor Daniel Kreiss likes to give a presentation that opens with a quote from 1891. That year, James Clarkson, chairman of the Republican National Committee, spent two years building a voter file that featured the “age, occupation, nativity, residence and all the other facts in each votersʼ life, and had them arranged alphabetically, so that literature could be sent constantly to every voter directly.”

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, Kreiss presents a deep history of political data in the United States from the 1890s through the 2008 campaign. This is the first of a two-part podcast. The next episode will discuss the 2008, 2012 and current campaigns, including reporting from Iowa about how the current candidates for president are targeting voters. (Update: You can now listen to Part 2 here.) ...

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