In neighborhoods across Minnesota, campaign volunteers clutching smartphones and iPads are fanning out, targeting specific houses while skipping others in what may seem like a random game of Whac-A-Mole.
But with just over five weeks before Election Day, they’re meshing consumer data they bought, the state’s public voter registration data and political party surveys to track down who’s likely to vote for their candidate but less likely to actually show up at the polls. The goal: Convince them to turn out.
The same is happening on Facebook, YouTube and streaming sites such as Hulu, where campaigns are increasingly using digital ads to target certain demographics — for instance, by making sure a baby boomer sees a Facebook ad stating a candidate’s position on health care.
Politics is even invading personal text messages, as campaigns text volunteers to mobilize or remind eligible voters to register.
More and more, campaigns are relying on hyperlocal, data-driven ways to drum up a victory. Most are measures that voters don’t know about and will never see, even as they change the way campaigns are run in Minnesota and around the country.
“It makes a big difference in a state like Minnesota,” said Eitan Hersh, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University, who wrote a book on the use of big data in campaigns. “These tools make it easier to pinpoint the people who are responsive to these messages.”
While big data has been used throughout the 2000s, namely by former President Barack Obama, Minnesota political parties and campaigns say the efforts are getting more accurate and may be more important than ever this year because Minnesota is in play nationally. Several high-profile, competitive races are on the Nov. 6 ballot — from the governor’s job and control of the Legislature to several competitive congressional seats.
“Companies and corporations have been doing this for years,” said Christiana Purves, the Republican National Committee’s regional communications director. “Republicans and Democrats being able to tap into this has just allowed us to be more precise.”
If campaigns can win over undecided voters and draw out likely supporters who don’t usually vote in midterms, it could be enough to tip a tight race in their favor. In a September Star Tribune/MPR News Minnesota Poll, about 6 to 18 percent of 800 Minnesota likely voters said they were undecided in the governor’s and Senate races. And historically, while Minnesota’s turnout at polling places is higher than other states, midterm races still draw a smaller percentage of eligible voters.
“Turnout is a big deal,” Hersh said, adding that campaigns may use data to predict undecided voters, but it’s mainly used to convince supporters to vote. “With increased polarization, it’s very difficult to move people.”
Data may be more critical in Minnesota because, unlike many other states, voters don’t register with political parties.
“Every company knows whether you bought their shoes or not,” Hersh said. “[Political campaigns] have no way to gauge if their attempts to persuade you worked.”
That’s why, for the first time, the Republican National Committee (RNC) is investing in big data in Minnesota this election year. Since seeing the Obama campaign’s use of data in 2012, the RNC said it’s invested $200 million on the technology nationally.
“We’ve never been this committed to the state as this time,” said Mark Jefferson, the RNC’s regional political director.
Like the Democrats, the RNC builds voter files and assigns voters a score from 0 to 100 based off consumer data such as the magazines you subscribe to or the credit card companies you use, and it combines that with where you’re registered to vote and when you have voted, trying to guess the likelihood you’ll turn out this year to vote for a Republican. While that data isn’t new, staff members are also surveying voters to gather more information and sharing voter files with campaigns statewide to help them as they canvass neighborhoods, armed with a specific script that appeals to a specific voter.
While technology is changing politics, it isn’t the game-changer that some have made it to be. “It’s marginal improvement,” Hersh said.
For voters, there could be a small benefit: less political mail and fewer phone calls.
“If you’re not using data as the foundation of your program, you should be fired as campaign staff,” said Carrie Lucking, the campaign manager for Tim Walz, the Democrat running for governor, adding that the “tech revolution” for campaigns is about not using a lot of technology badly but instead using it more precisely.
Many campaigns use apps to mass-text volunteers to remind them to show up for events, and they say it works better than e-mails that can be easily overlooked or phone calls that can go unanswered.
Justin Arnold, the campaign manager for Jeff Johnson, the Republican candidate for governor, said that generally, technology is helping campaigns improve targeting to voters through texts and digital social media ads, meeting voters where they are — on their phones.
While large statewide races still rely heavily on TV ads, he said targeting information at certain voters is more key for smaller local races with limited budgets.
“It puts an ever-increasing importance on the quality of the data you use,” he said. “If you’re doing it to the wrong people, it’s a waste of money.”