What’s the real story behind the Conservative victory?

The role of Lynton Crosby, big data and micro-targeting in delivering a Conservative victory

(Image source: The Guardian)

Last Thursday evening a few hours before polls closed, a rumour went around that CCHQ were hoping for upwards of 302 seats. The reaction of most people to this rumour was one of incredulity – surely the polls couldn’t be that badly wrong? And didn’t Labour have the better ‘ground game’?

It turns out that the prediction of 302 was a conservative one, but it reflected the reality much more closely than any of the final opinion polls, which gave Labour the momentum of the last few days.

The fact that CCHQ were so confident that the Conservatives would be at least the largest party says a lot about the professionalism of the Conservative campaigning operation. Lynton Crosby’s marrying of party discipline with a compelling message was clearly a big part of this and commentators are right to salute this as one of his many famous victories.

But there was another element at play in this campaign – the Conservative’s use of data and micro-targeting, which both bolstered big messages with individually targeted messages for key voters, but also allowed the Party to have a richer level of data about their key voters. Key voters were sent what looked to be personalised letters or e-mails from senior Conservative figures, addressing  their individual concerns. The man driving this was the same man who had worked similar wonders for the Obama campaign – Jim Messina.

This was picked up in a tremendous blog by Seb Payne at the Spectator. Seb argued that:

The Obama guru and former White House deputy chief of staff was hired by the Tories for his data nuance…. His firm Messina Quantitative Research provided provided accurate data from marginals throughout the campaign, which fed into Lynton Crosby’s campaign”. 

What the Conservative campaign understood, in a way that Labour’s didn’t, was the importance of understanding the preferences and concerns of individual voters and using micro-targeting to reach voters. The Labour campaign, on the other hand, was much more broad-brush and clumsy. It had entirely avoidable missteps (the ridiculous ‘Ed stone’ for one) and didn’t tackle the negative perceptions of the party until much too late, but relied to a much greater extent on overall messaging and an over-confidence on a ‘ground game’.

What this ignored was that the greater understanding of voters provided by data and micro-targeting could supplant any perceived advantage in ground game. And this is before you consider the fact that the Conservative operation on the ground was also considerably better than in 2010 (this being a major priority of Grant Shapps since he became party chairman). A ground game is only effective if you understand your voters, understand the motivations and priorities of potential voters and, frankly, have enough potential voters for a ‘GOTV’ operation to ‘get out’.  The Labour campaign failed on these tests, whereas the Conservative campaign was geared around all of them.

How data is changing politics and campaigns for good was nicely set out in Sasha Issenberg’s excellent The Victory Lab: The Secret of Winning Campaigns. Issenberg argued that winning campaigns are no longer purely broad brush. Instead, successful campaigns are now driven by sophisticated data that treats voters as complex individuals, with individual decision making priorities. Data-mining, micro-targeting and social psychology are at least as important to modern campaigns as billboards.

In many ways, this is just politics catching up with how business works. The most successful businesses are those who have a deep understanding of their customers’ preferences and who their potential customers might be. Likewise, successful political campaigns are those that understand the motivations and preferences of individual voters. Too many campaigns have lost touch with how business is using big data and the Conservative campaign represents politics gradually playing catch-up with how marketing communications have been evolving for years. In many ways, political campaigning still needs a great leap forward to catch up with business.

The 2015 election showed that political campaigning is changing and becoming ever more sophisticated. Big ideas matter, as does winning the air war, but successful campaigns cannot ignore the importance of understanding individual voters and successful campaigns are now characterised by their ability to both understand voters and reach them with tailored messages.