Campaign 2012: Mining for voters

Data-driven campaigning goes mainstream

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In search of the like-minded

Many of the voters the Sierra Club wants to reach aren't in its own member database, so Duvall works with Catalist, a consortium of progressive organizations that maintains a 500-terabyte database of information describing both registered and unregistered U.S. voters.

   Laura Quinn
"Our database is about civic behavior and transactions, what issues you care about, what causes you support, whether you tend to vote or not, and so on," says Catalist CEO Laura Quinn.

Catalist matches up the Sierra Club's member database with its own data and provides access to the full database, which combines state voter registration lists with commercial consumer data that includes demographic (race, gender, age, income) and psychographic (interests, hobbies, lifestyles) information on individuals and households. Catalist buys commercial consumer data from traditional data aggregators and reporting agencies such as Acxiom and Equifax. Voter lists come from the states.

For those states that don't release voter registration data, Catalist has developed models that predict, at the household level, who is likely to be Republican or Democrat and how they're likely to vote -- something it couldn't do in 2008. "Our database is about civic behavior and transactions, what issues you care about, what causes you support, whether you tend to vote or not, and so on," says Catalist CEO Laura Quinn.

Yair Ghitza, senior scientist at Catalist, explains further: "Our clients determine the likelihood that someone is going to vote, care about certain issues or has leanings on certain issues, their partisanship and ideologies, and the actions they're most likely to engage in when they take civic action," he says.

Aristotle Inc. offers a similar service to trade associations and campaigns, including both presidential campaigns, according to CEO John Aristotle Phillips. Its database of more than 700 data fields, which describe the traits of more than 85 million registered voters, is used for both fundraising and get-out-the-vote initiatives.

   John Aristotle Phillips
"What we're seeing in 2012 is much more effective use of real-time access" to databases about voters, says John Aristotle Phillips, CEO of Aristotle Inc.

Clients use it to create models that find people who are similarly minded or likely to contribute. Aristotle then helps them deliver a targeted message to individuals who match the criteria through various channels, including TV, direct mail, email and social media. The more sophisticated campaigns were doing this in the last election cycle, says Aristotle.

"What we're seeing in 2012 is much more effective use of real-time access to these databases. You know as contributions are coming in who else to email of a similar demographic," he says.

"Digital is no longer a separate division in campaigns," says Patrick Hynes, president of Hynes Communications, a consultancy specializing in online and new media communications strategy that currently serves as an adviser to the Romney campaign. "It's cross-portfolio -- everyone has to work in a digital environment."

But the next election cycle, he says, will be all about mobile. "Mobile will be first in the minds of everyone" -- for everything from polling to press releases, sentiment measurement and fundraising, he says.

Mobile gains

Mobile is already changing the game, particularly in the area of door-to-door campaigning, where canvassers are increasingly taking advantage of mobile apps and the Square mobile payment service.

Square offers a small card reader that attaches to a smartphone, enabling the user to accept payments anywhere, at any time. Canvassers who use the device can take campaign donations right on voters' doorsteps.

As campaign volunteers go door to door, they might rely on mobile apps for customized messages about specific households. They could look at profiles that not only indicate whether an individual is a Republican or a Democrat, but also offer guidance about how much of a donation to ask for based on the person's past history of campaign donations. In addition, canvassers can use apps to capture details of interactions with voters and upload that information to the campaign database, thereby providing continuous, real-time feedback.

"The Obama campaign has taken it up a notch," says Engage's Ruffini. "They're recording what people say when they knock on doors. They make thousands of phone calls every night. They do text analysis, and then make decisions on TV and ad spending." (Obama for America did not return calls asking for comment.)

On the Republican side, mobile apps improve the efficiency of door-to-door campaigning, because they can tell canvassers exactly which doors to knock on in rural areas to reach the party faithful, independents and swing voters, says Hynes. Because Democrats tend to live in urban areas, Democratic campaign workers can be effective by canvassing entire neighborhoods. However, "Republicans live in the suburbs and exurbs, so it's been harder to go door to door," says Hynes, adding that mobile is helping to level the playing field.

Next, in part 2 of this story: Merging online and offline data, the creepiness factor and more.

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at, or email him at


Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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