The winner of this year's presidential election: Big data

The reason Obama won wasn't the economy, foreign policy, or women's issues -- it's the data, stupid

After this endless and bitter presidential campaign, there's sure to be a lot of finger pointing as to who deserves the credit -- or blame -- for last night's results. Among other things, I expect people will implicate hurricanes, negative campaigning, turncoat governors, secret video recordings, angry Hispanics, even angrier feminists, and candidates who really needed to keep their traps shut when talking about body parts they do not own.

And if you're Ted Nugent on Twitter, you blame "pimps, whores, welfare brats, soulless fools, and subhuman varmints."

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But forget all that. Regardless of who you were rooting for, the reason one man won and the other lost comes down to big data. Yeah, I know -- that's one of those phrases everyone's already tired of, along with "cloud computing" and "Call Me Maybe," but this is one place where it truly fits.

Time.com has an excellent report on how the Obama campaign pulled it off. It started in 2008, when the Obamanistas inherited a series of siloed databases created by the Democrats over the years that were an unholy mess. After muddling through that data to win the White House, the O-Team threw it all away and started over. Instead, it added vast amounts of new data from things like Web tracking and social media sites. (Voter privacy? We don't need no stinkin' voter privacy.)

After about 18 months of serious number crunching, the Obama campaign understood how to find distinct patterns in vast amounts of previously unstructured data. It knew which districts to target and which ones to ignore. It knew what messages would appeal to women and minority voters. It knew where to spend its money more efficiently, and it learned how to raise a whole lot more of it by targeting potential donors depending on who they were and how the appeals were sent. Per Time's Michael Scherer:

The new megafile didn't just tell the campaign how to find voters and get their attention; it also allowed the number crunchers to run tests predicting which types of people would be persuaded by certain kinds of appeals....

"We could [predict] people who were going to give online. We could model people who were going to give through mail. We could model volunteers," said one of the senior advisers about the predictive profiles built by the data. "In the end, modeling became something way bigger for us in '12 than in '08 because it made our time more efficient."

Turns out if you use George Clooney in your ads, women will empty their pocketbooks for you. Go figure.

The other guys had lots of data, too, but they didn't know how to combine or comb through it to see patterns beyond the obvious. Small wonder, then, that Karl Rove was so insistent Ohio hadn't been lost for the Republicans last night when it was clear to everyone else that it had: He was missing the big picture.

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