Running for elective office is about building an organization to promote the candidate’s views. It’s about attracting professionals and volunteers to make calls and knock on doors. It’s about raising money. But today a political campaign of any size needs to be about collecting and analyzing data about voters: who supports the candidate, who can be persuaded, who may give money and who will show up at the polls.
The political parties provide their candidates with access to data, but access is just the start. To make productive use of data, campaigns must first ensure it is of high quality and then employ analysis to identify supporters, encourage them to volunteer and donate and, most importantly, get out to vote.
Sophisticated data analysis is not a level playing field—it costs a lot of money. What’s more, effective analysis of data creates a virtuous cycle: More resources enable a campaign to collect more data about voters’ views, to find more supporters, to refine messages that resonate, to recruit more volunteers, to attract even more donors and to get their supporters to the polls.
Rivals who are less adept with data or have fewer resources are at a significant disadvantage, says Daniel Kreiss, who teaches media studies at the University of North Carolina and is the author of “Prototype Politics: Technology-Intensive Campaigning and the Data of Democracy.”
“One of the things that data helps do is to figure out which groups of voters do we need to target, and which groups of voters do we need to spend our time and our messaging resources on,” says Kreiss. “And how do we efficiently do that to get more votes, again on Election Day, than the next person. So data matters greatly in terms of resources.”
A number of companies have emerged in recent years to help candidates and campaigns crunch data. NationBuilder, for example, prides itself on serving all political persuasions. Emily Schwartz, NationBuilder’s vice president of organizing, says that today’s data tools make analytical resources available to local and grassroots campaigns as well as national ones.
NationBuilder’s service is free to try, then users pay monthly fees based on the level of services, such as software for email campaigns and campaign-focused websites.
Other organizations offer data help to candidates:
- i360, whose backers include the conservative Koch brothers, bills itself as “the leading data and technology resource for the free market political advocacy community.”
- NGP VAN is a voter-data management platform for Democratic candidates and progressive organizations.
- The Republican National Committee’s Data Center 2016 project is a proprietary voter file designed to give its candidates ammunition in data-driven elections.
The Obama model
Like other political experts, Meta S. Brown, president of the consultancy A4A Brown Inc. and author of “Data Mining for Dummies,” points to President Obama’s 2012 re-election victory over Mitt Romney as a recent high point in the use of data. In that election, the Obama campaign sent out volunteers to go door to door asking voters their opinions.
“You can use that information in every way you campaign,” says Brown. “They can use it in advertising and how to do ad buys effectively. That was a big competitive advantage of the Obama campaign over the Romney campaign.”
That data crunching provided another type of competitive advantage, she adds: The Obama campaign could spend fewer ad dollars to reach voters, on average, because they selected only those TV programs and times they needed.
The kind of sophisticated data analysis goes well beyond TV. It enables a campaign to microtarget people through email messages, social media, online ads, follow-up visits and phone calls to the homes of supporters to encourage them to vote.
Brown points to the Obama campaign’s expert use of social media as a model in the modern campaign. The campaign found supporters on Facebook (through their “likes” or message postings) and got them to send supportive messages to friends in swing states like Ohio. “That ability to take advantage of social media, that really is a tipping point,” says Brown.
The effective use of data can also reinforce a campaign’s relative strength against an opponent.
Campaigns that collect voters’ email addresses can conduct experiments on which messages are more effective, down to the email subject line, says Kreiss. By testing which type of message delivers better results—yielding more volunteers or more donations—the campaigns refine their efforts. The Obama campaign estimated that insights gained through these “A/B tests” added $100 million in donations during the 2012 race, according to Kreiss.
It starts with voter data
Campaigns start their data work with voter records. Voter data is largely a matter of public record in the United States. That includes names and mailing address and often when the person voted in past elections. It sometimes includes party affiliation.
For data experts, getting these names is just the start. The information needs to be in a format that computers can read. Voter rolls are subject to change as people move, die, change names or register for the first time. Keeping an accurate and up-to-date voter database is a major task for registration officials. A 2012 study by the Pew Center on the States found that about 24 million voter registrations in the United States—one in every eight—are no longer valid or are inaccurate. And voter lists do not come in a standard format, says Schwartz of NationBuilder. Wisconsin, Virginia and Washington, for example, do not provide party affiliation with their voter lists.
Brown notes that data has to be organized to be useful, and that takes work. “It doesn’t matter who the source is, you have to expect some quality problems and do some investigations,” she says. That’s where the well-funded and data-savvy campaign has a significant advantage.
Data and our democracy
Experts on data analysis disagree on its implications for the country. Kreiss says cynics argue that candidates use data to manipulate voters, but he argues for the benefits of analysis.
“We live in world where it is a lot harder to reach voters than it was 40 years ago because people’s media habits have changed significantly,” he says. “So to the extent that data is enrolled in the ability of campaigns to actually figure out which sorts of voters should we be talking to, how do we mobilize them, how do we get them to the polls and, ultimately, what should we be saying in order to get people excited about particular candidates, I think that is a good thing for democracy.”
The rise of data crunching in politics also tends to favor incumbents, because those who have been in the game before will have more detailed data in their files.
Eitan Hersh, an assistant professor of political science at Yale, says that while political parties share data with candidates about voters in their district, incumbents are able to take advantage of the data they have collected in previous campaigns to reconnect with previously identified supporters.
“They make lists of everyone who asked for a yard sign and made a donation and volunteered. And if you have been in Congress for 10 years, and you have a whole bunch of people on that list, that can be very valuable,” says Hersh. “If a challenger comes around, they might not have that.”
The technology used to analyze voter data—which costs less than buying TV ads—can help an upstart to level the playing field, but it requires the insurgent campaign to have data savvy and a lot of volunteers.
“One huge advantage that is closely tied to data is volunteer support because a lot of the strategies that utilize data are things like door-to-door canvassing and phone banking, strategies where the data helps you [know] who to contact and helps you study the effectiveness of contacts,” says Hersh. “Once you have a certain level of data access, that data can power volunteers. And it’s hard to manufacture volunteers.”
Another effect of campaign data-crunching is the potential for increased voter turnout.
Ryan Enos, an associate professor of government at Harvard, co-authored a study of get-out-the-vote efforts in the 2012 presidential race. Both the Obama and Romney campaigns successfully used data-driven techniques to encourage citizens to vote. In total, the campaigns raised voter turnout by 2.6 million people, or 7 percent, says Enos. “If we define a healthy democracy as one with larger participation, then that is probably a good thing,” he says.
However, there is a participation gap in who responds to these get-out-the-vote efforts, says Enos. People who are already more likely to vote are more responsive. “What we find is that these sorts of techniques work best for people who tend to be politically conservative. They tend to be richer, they tend not to be racial minorities. In some ways what these techniques do is widen the gap in what we might call participators and non-participators,” he says.
At the end of the day, successful use of data is no substitute for a strong candidate. Schwartz, who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign, notes that effectively using data saves time and money in targeting voters. It does not substitute for a candidate’s message. “They ran an incredible campaign,” she says of 2008. But they also had Barack Obama.”
This blog was written through a partnership with Thompson Reuters. To learn how SAP is helping them Run Live, click here.
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