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Politicians relying less on polling, more on tweets

Anthony Weiner
Getty Images
Anthony Weiner

New York mayoral hopeful Anthony Wiener's latest Twitter fallout has caused him to drop several points in the polls this week, but Weiner told NBC News on Monday that those numbers didn't matter much. "Polls don't stop the election. I'm going to keep moving forward," Weiner said.

The former congressman reflects a growing trend of politicians on the campaign trail relying less and less on polling because of its somewhat antiquated approach toward measuring public opinion. They are turning to social media instead.

Weiner, of all people, understands the power of Twitter, which became somewhat of a double-edged sword for him as he had to end his congressional career.

If you believe the polling institutes, you're an elderly homebody who waits patiently by the phone and endures 15-minute opinion surveys.

This may be you, but chances are it's not. Especially because more than one-third of the population doesn't use landline telephones anymore.

Today's political campaigns demand reliable assessments of public opinion in real time, something that the traditional polls have yet to accomplish.

Polling organizations have turned to robo-polls—automated telephone polling surveys—to be more efficient with money since cold-calling may turn out to be a huge waste of time. But that hasn't really brought polling up to speed.

John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University and an expert on presidential election campaigns, described robo-polls as "funky."

"A lot of the polling problems are tied to the robo-polls," Geer said. "They're quick and dirty and cheap. You don't know who the devil is answering; it could be a 5-year-old."

Companies such as BehaviorMatrix have started to sprout up in the past few years in an effort to pick up the slack. Marketing themselves to politicians, party donors and private companies as a quick and effective polling alternative, these firms use a blend of data analysis and behavioral science to sidestep the phone calls and dive right into the 21st century's fountain of public opinion—your tweets.

(Read more: Firms try to outwit mother nature—using big data)

BehaviorMatrix was launched in Blue Bell, Pa., just outside Philadelphia in 2008, as what CEO Bill Thompson called a "stealth" organization. The company waited four years to start taking clients, just in time for the 2012 presidential election.

The 30-person team of scientists at BehaviorMatrix uses proprietary, patent-pending technology called EmPrint (emotional imprint) to gauge people's emotional disposition toward a specific subject, using algorithms that connect public records (such as voter registration, names, addresses) and social media posts that share people's thoughts on current affairs and politics with their friends (and everyone else) in cyberspace.

The next step is to measure the intensity of certain emotions expressed on these platforms, which BehaviorMatrix's behavioral scientists assume will guide voters during any election.

According to Thompson, BehaviorMatrix has been able to predict election results with a 97 percent accuracy rate using EmPrint technology. Thompson said that BehaviorMatrix called the outcome of the 2012 election months before Election Day, when Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his running mate in early August.

BehaviorMatrix wasn't the only political player using data analysis for a competitive edge on the campaign trail.

Big data analysis can determine big-time elections

During the last presidential election, President Barack Obama had a team of 54 scientists whose sole responsibility was to develop campaign strategies based on research collected via big data analysis.

Rayid Ghani, the chief scientist for Obama's re-election campaign, said that although social media can provide good feedback, the Obama campaign didn't abandon good, old-fashioned polling and replace it with social media data-diving. Polling is still seen as a dependable resource on the campaign trail.

"Social media isn't the best way to get a voting sample of the American public. It's a very, very biased sample of the public," Ghani said. "If done well, polls are yet another data source."

Bias is inevitable, especially when getting a solid estimate of how the general population feels. Polling, however, allows for scientists to correct the samples of people surveyed to understand the representation they have in the voting population.

Robert Santos is a senior methodologist at the Urban Institute, a public policy think tank which in the last election was known for the use of the "47 percent" statistic taken from a tax study it jointly conducted with the Brookings Institution that went viral in a speech by Romney during the campaign. Some credit that verbal misstep to the dissolution of his presidential aspirations.

Santos says that BehaviorMatrix's methods of data analysis won't replace polling, because they lack the precision of polling. Precision isn't always needed, however. Sometimes simply knowing that there is a general shift in public opinion is enough.

"If you're on a beach and see a tsunami coming, you don't need to know the exact measurement. You just need to know that it's a big damn wave," Santos said.

(Read more: Investing in the data scientist gap)

A shift in public opinion is something that today's politicians need to pay close attention to, especially because there is no such thing as a campaign hiatus between elections anymore. The wheels of the campaign machine are constantly turning behind the scenes; something that BehaviorMatrix's Thompson says is necessary for success in politics.

"If you want to be a consistent winner, you have to win cycle to cycle," Thompson said. "The key is to keep it building."

BehaviorMatrix is barred from revealing some of its clients names, oftentimes political candidates, because of nondisclosure agreements.

Much of what BehaviorMatrix does is under the radar. Thompson said he was even reluctant to have a company website, but he eventually acquiesced to his marketing team's requests.

"Most of what we do isn't even on the website," Thompson said. "Our clients know what we do, they come to us."

BehaviorMatrix is already collecting EmPrint data on potential presidential candidates for the 2016 election. Data on New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is compiled daily, Thompson said.

Will data analysis call the outcome of the next presidential election? Thompson was unperturbed.

"It already chose the last two," he said.

By Matthew Creegan, CNBC.com

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