Presidential hopefuls understand that the road to the White House is paved with data, as much as possible. Big Data, intimate knowledge of the voter, has become the latest weapon in the candidate’s arsenal.
Voter profiles are vital to knowing the electorate. Both Democratic and Republican parties keep extensive voter records. They understand the vital importance data plays in not only getting out the vote, but also fundraising and tracking issues that concern voters.
Data tracking of voters actually began in 2002. That year, Congress established the Help America Vote Act or HAVA. The HAVA act required states to compile an official state voter database. It was up to the states to decide what information to include, how the information could be used, and the cost of the database.
The United States Census Bureau also collects voter information. So the concept of the secret ballot in America is a myth.
Voter profiles reveal extremely detailed and personal information. Big data collectors know your sexual orientation, income and occupation, gun ownership, race and religion, marital status, and even what magazines you read, food you eat, personal hygiene preferences, and prescriptions.
This is mostly demographic information. Data collection means nothing if secrets are off limits.
According to Politico, presidential hopeful Ted Cruz has enlisted the help of a little-known company called Cambridge Analytica. The company is owned by one of his biggest donors. Cambridge Analytica uses non-traditional “psychographic analyses of voters using micro-messages to secure their support.”
President Obama set the precedent of using Big Data to reach voters in his 2012 campaign. According to DataFloq.com, the Obama campaign ran over 66,000 computer simulations a day. Obama’s political advisor and former White House Chief of Staff for Operations, Jim Messina, said the objective was to “measure everything.”
According to Wired, “Obama’s campaign began the 2012 election year confident it knew the name of every one of the 69,456,897 Americans whose votes had put him in the White House.”
Voter data is being collected not only by candidates and political parties, but also by various groups interested in influencing the political process before, during, and after elections.
The Koch brothers, well known political activists, have established a fund called, ‘Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce.’ According to the Freedom Partners tax filings, one of the Koch network’s biggest investments, $11 million, was spent growing its voter database.
So how are candidates using this information? One of the most vital uses for voter information is issue tracking. Candidates closely monitor how particular issues are perceived across geographic and demographic lines. This data allows them to tailor their message for different voting blocs.
Data collection can track incoming telephone calls and emails to candidates. The campaign can collect and analyze petitions and supporter lists from advocacy groups and NGOs (Non-Government Organizations). This permits the candidate to closely track how issues are trending with voters. The bottom line is, candidates can know what a particular group of voters want to hear before they speak.
Another vital use of voter data is getting out the vote. Voter turnout can be vital in both local and national elections. Candidates are using big data to ensure their supporters get to the polls.
In one example, the Georgia GOP created a mobile app for its volunteers and employees. These workers used the app to collect information such as the interests and concerns of individual voters. This app was linked in real-time to the party’s 14 “victory offices.”
Volunteers made call after call, politely introducing themselves before getting into the campaign pitch. The volunteers knew exactly what to talk about to each voter based on the data collected through the app and used this information to urge people to the polls.
Data collection also makes fundraising easier and allows candidates to keep the money flowing by reaching out via email and mailings asking for donations. Because of big data, campaigns know how much money potential contributors can afford to donate.
Big data helps campaigns target donors both small and large, individual and groups. Candidates know and understand the issues these groups are interested in and can use data to tailor their request for money.
The bottom line is candidates can know what a particular group of voters want to hear before they speak.
Data has become so important that squabbles have broken out over data and access to it. Recently, Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’ campaign was denied access to the DNC voter database after accusations that his staffers illegally accessed Hillary Clinton’s data.
Sanders claimed that a software glitch was responsible for the exposure of Clinton’s data. He apologized and fired a handful of staffers for exploiting the glitch. The Democratic National Committee blocked the Sanders campaign from accessing its voter data but restored the access after Sanders threatened to sue.
But with all this information being collected by the candidates, is there concern about voter privacy? Many experts believe that the greatest threat to voter privacy won’t come from retailers or the NSA or law enforcement, but from election campaigns at all levels.
Political organizations and candidates have clear privacy policies that can be found online. But these privacy policies do not extend to those who collect and sell private information. And in case you’re wondering, there are plenty of voter lists and data for sale online.
Breaches of voter data have recently made news. In December of last year, a massive voter database containing the names and personal information of 190 million voters was found online. No one has claimed ownership of the data and a programming error is believed to have left the information exposed.
In Georgia, the secretary of state was heavily criticized for accidentally mailing out discs containing the data of over 6 million voters to various news organizations.
The CDs contained voter data that were regularly mailed out as part of a legal subscription service offering access to lists of registered voters. The CDs were mailed to subscribers with additional sensitive information like social security numbers, dates of birth, and driver’s license numbers.
Candidates too are swallowing up massive amounts of data. In December, a political action committee working on behalf of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was seen collecting data from New Hampshire voters. Willing voters surrendered information including names, email addresses, zip codes, and candidate preferences.
Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, has begun the process of building a formidable data collection machine. Data strategists Matt Braynard and Witold Chrabaszcz lead Trump’s team with the help of political data collection firms L2 and rVote.
Trump’s team is collecting data through his campaign website and at voter rallies and is focused on nontraditional or unregistered supporters. This is combined with data from the Republican National Committee and commercially available data in an effort to mobilize supporters in key early states.
Candidate Ted Cruz has even employed Santa Claus to collect voter data. Cruz made several campaign appearances with Santa, allowing his supporters to take pictures with Jolly Ol’ St. Nick. But in order to retrieve the pictures, the supporters had to submit their names, email, and zip codes.
But Santa is not the only tool the Cruz campaign is using to get voter data. The campaign uses an app that encourages users to provide the name and contact information of friends. Users are awarded points for contact data, basically making a game of surrendering personal information.
Users are even encouraged to turn over the full contact list from their smartphone or computers for reward points. You can also get points for donating money as well.
Learning from retail marketers, candidates have begun using the very same methods of collecting data. Nearly every campaign sells products with campaign logos to their supporters. These products tell a story about each and every buyer/voter.
Candidates learn a lot about their supporters based on the product they buy — such as if you prefer beer or wine. Are you into sports? What cellphone you own? What is your level of heath and fitness? Do you have a child and what is that child’s age?
The money that comes from these sales is a nice addition to the information collected. The more sophisticated the product, the more a candidate can learn about his or her supporters.
Keep in mind, buying products from a candidate’s website is really a campaign contribution. Besides being asked your full name, shipping address, phone and email, and credit card number, you will also see a statement that says; “Federal law requires us to collect the following information”: employer, occupation, and whether you are retired — just like any other other online donation. Basically more data.