Political marketing used to be the equivalent of a retailer putting a flier on every car in the grocery store parking lot.

Now, just as retailers seem to know what we want before we want it, politicos are getting in the “big data” game to better predict and act on our political choices. And Republicans think they have the upper hand.

After the 2012 election, Republicans realized they were badly outmatched when it came to the new technology deployed by both corporations and also the sophisticated campaign of President Barack Obama.

Former GOP Chairman Reince Priebus helped raise the staggering sum of $200 million to build a system that is now run in part by Brian Parnitzke, a Wisconsinite who runs the Republican National Committee’s targeting and turnout operation.

It works like this: They take a survey. They match the Republicans in the survey with more than 3,000 points of consumer and other publicly available data — how long your commute is, what magazines you subscribe to, and so on. They match up the consumer and other data that are most heavily correlated with the Republicans in the survey. Now they have a profile and can build an algorithm. They run every voter in the state through the algorithm and figure out how likely each is to be a Republican.

Now they have a good idea of how every voter is likely to behave — whether they are going to vote and for whom. Parnitzke, who was in Minnesota last week touting the system, said the predictive results have been scarily accurate since 2014 — often contradicting public polling.

“We were Thom Tillis’ favorite call of the week, because we were the only ones saying you can win,” Parnitzke said, referring to the North Carolina Republican U.S. senator’s successful 2014 bid.

And, with more data pumped into the machine all the time, the system gets smarter.

They can use this information to find the voters they need, knock on their doors and give them a tailored message.

Like the one deployed to likely Hillary Clinton voters in 2016, who said they wanted a change from Obama’s policies. GOP field staff and volunteers made the case to these voters that a vote for Clinton was a vote for more of the same. They flipped votes this way.

Unlike the Obama campaign, which built a similar system for the president’s re-election, the GOP data effort isn’t candidate-specific.

Minnesota Republicans can also take heart in the party’s interest in the state: Parnitzke and Mark Jefferson, the national party’s regional political director, were here to say they’re going to bring the system to bear in Minnesota this year and in 2020.

A caution, however: Voters can be strange ducks, and it’s hard to know which way they’ll fly.


J. Patrick Coolican 651-925-5042 Twitter: @jpcoolican patrick.coolican@startribune.com