Election Day is three weeks away and the campaigns are hitting the final stretch. We voters and our perception of the candidates are driving millions of dollars of spending in travel, message development, content production and media buys. And what the campaigns want most as this money is spent is data. Our data. We hold the key to victory in thousands of races and candidates want to know about us.
The campaign data quest starts with the county clerk. Candidates do need to know how to reach voters, obviously. Any campaign organization can obtain official voter records with the proper request. And these widely available databases have been refined and arranged by different political organizations so that any candidate can easily obtain a list of all the voters in their area, their address and phone number, and how often they voted, generally back to 2004. At the most basic level, these databases turn into walk lists for door-to-door campaigning or telephone call lists. They are also the foundation for mailings and allow candidates to target their messages to specific households based on the voting history of the residents.
One tactic used a great deal this year is “absentee chasing.” County clerks are required to provide the list of all voters requesting an absentee ballot to campaigns at the close of each day during the campaign period. Campaign staffers then call the voters on the list to follow up and ensure that the ballot is completed and sent in. If you are surprised (pleasantly, I hope) to get a friendly call to check on the status of your absentee ballot, this is why you got that call.
Polling has been traditionally important for news organizations to track and predict outcomes, and for candidates to measure and assess tactics. But after the Trump victory four years ago, many people (this columnist included) declared traditional polling to be dead as a data method for campaigns. Exit polling had been inaccurate since 2000. Trump’s win flat-out contradicted several established and well-regarded polling organizations. The reason polls failed to predict the Trump victory? Because telephone questionnaires couldn’t provide data anywhere nearly as accurate as Big Data.
The day after Election Day in 2016, Cambridge Analytica was on every news channel. Cambridge Analytica had been used by political campaigns around the world as well as those of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump to identify the perfect voter base—by aggregating personal data available for the taking from Google, Facebook and all the other consumer data portals fed by voters every day. And alarm bells sounded worldwide as the reality of digital profiles being used for political voter surveillance without individual consent hit home. Ultimately, it was discovered that Cambridge Analytica had inappropriately accessed the personal data of 87 million Facebook users and leveraged that data for its political clients.
Cambridge Analytica disbanded in 2018 while settling dozens of state-level lawsuits worldwide, and the Facebook scandal cost Mark Zuckerberg $37 billion in market capitalization. We all read about that, but here’s a fun claim Cambridge Analytica made you might not have heard about: In 2017 the firm stated it had psychological profiles of 220 million American citizens based on over 5,000 data sets. The Cambridge Analytica executives didn’t retire, nor did they destroy their data. They pretty much just went back to work under new brands and less press (Emerdata is one spinoff, by the way).
From what I see, it does seem like American politics backed away from Big Data in 2020, simply as citizens became a bit more aware of the vulnerability of their data. Polls are making a comeback after 2016, and a couple new polling outfits have joined the polling data community. More importantly, digital solutions have been improved to provide the accuracy and sample sizes needed to generate statistically relevant poll results.
Back to those voter lists. The national parties have been able to finesse these lists to a high level by studying primary and early, absentee and Election Day voting activity. For instance, if you are a Democrat who has voted in every primary since 2004, you are considered a “hard Democrat,” and a reliable voter in the general election. If you only vote in the general election, or only sometimes then, you are placed in another category. Campaigns are encouraged to continue to add sophistication with available apps from national-level political organizations to harvest and organize data obtained during direct contact canvassing. I don’t much care for this trend to harvest data at the local level to upload to the national level, and in my very brief tenure as a candidate I refused to do it. It’s impossible to do while going door to door in the East Mountains, happily; it’s hard enough physically getting to each voter, much less a cell signal. With phone banking, I imagine it’s fairly simple to get voter data.
No one can say 2020 will be a typical election. I do look forward to casting my vote in early voting next week. I am pretty sure I’ll wind up in a couple databases, to say the least.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.