Gone are the days when volunteers fanned out to knock on doors carrying nothing more than typed lists of registered voters and a pencil to write down what they had to say.
Today, those campaigners are more likely to be armed with smart phones and mobile tablets that are connected to huge voter databases that may include everything from someone’s voter history to which magazines they read.
The stranger at the door may know more about you than the neighbor you invite to the Fourth of July picnic every year.
Welcome to campaigning in 2016. Both political parties this campaign season are using a combination of tried and true “shoe-leather” techniques and increasingly scientific “micro-targeting” that uses publicly available data to identify potential voters.
It is both sophisticated and, to some, scary.
“I have a serious reservation about this kind of massive data gathering,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of Cedarville University’s Center for Political Studies. “It concerns me because it’s going to be aggregated and there is a very significant profile about each one of us in political campaign headquarters and Facebook and throughout the country. But I don’t know how to avoid it.”
Gathering information on voters isn’t new, but the amount of data available at the fingertips has helped usher in a new wave of campaigning.
“Micro-targeting is a relatively new phenomenon because only recently have campaigns had the technology to precisely identify voters and their concerns and turn that information into something that is useful,” Smith said.
The vastness of the information available isn’t all that’s changing. Campaigns are also exploring new ways to get their message out to voters.
“If you tell me that your most important issue is national security and the Iran deal, within 24 hours I’m advertising online to you (through social media) about the Iran deal,” said Corry Bliss, campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
Sophisticated ground game
Both political parties are using technology as part of their so-called ground game.
Democrats nationwide use a uniform software program called VAN — Voter Activation Network — while Republicans use a variety of software programs, including the popular i360, which is used by Portman’s campaign.
Republican candidates also have access to data collected by the Republican National Committee, said Fred Brown, regional press secretary for the RNC.
Political campaigns and parties fill those databases with information from public records and personal interactions. They buy data to learn as much as they can about people before they make the call or knock on the door. They try to determine the magazine subscriptions, buying habits and consumer preferences of specific voters or groups of people.
Campaigners keep track of who was home and wasn’t, who people say they will vote for, what issues are most important, whether or not the person will volunteer or put out a yard sign and any other information the potential voter is willing to provide. Voters who sign the Democrats’ “commit to vote” card provide email and other contact information that is vital to get-out-the vote efforts.
The campaigners also make sure that if someone is wavering, they get a call from a field organizer to get the person firmly in one camp.
‘This is the brains’
In Ohio, the Ohio Democratic Party coordinates campaigning for candidates, ranging from local races all the way up to the presidential race, said Kirstin Alvanitakis, state party communications director. She said the state party has more than 70 full-time field organizers on the ground in Ohio, and they get support from the Democratic National Committee.
All use the VAN database that has been growing since 2006 when Howard Dean started it as chairman of the national party.
“We have a really rich and robust data set because we have been using it so long,” Alvanitakis said. “This is the brains of the operation for the Democratic Party.”
Republican candidates’ campaigns are not coordinated in the same way as the Democrats but the party is using an all hands on deck strategy, along with mining data sets on voters.
Ironically, Republicans borrowed a page from the Democrats’ playbook in fashioning a more effective campaign strategy, according to the RNC’s Brown.
“What we did was look at what Obama for America did and we improved on that,” said Brown, referring to Barack Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign. “In 2013 we changed our ground game.”
‘It’s very personal’
On a recent day volunteers worked the phones at the Montgomery County Democratic Party headquarters in downtown Dayton. Sandra Kenney of Beavercreek said she calls more than 100 people a day, mostly at this point focusing on lining up volunteers to work for the campaigns of Strickland and others.
She tells people about upcoming political events and gatherings and also organizes get-togethers of Democratic supporters, another old-school way to win elections.
“It’s very personal, a very community-based core,” said Kenney. “We think that gives us the strongest opportunities.”
On the same day, two interns working for Portman’s campaign visited a Washington Twp. neighborhood on Chestnut Hill Lane. Ryan Harpst, 20, and Tom Ferrall, 18, are both University of Dayton students who went door-to-door, smart phones and literature in hand, asking residents what their big concerns were and assuring them that Portman shared their values.
“The grassroots, getting out and talking to people is very important,” said resident Rebecca Lochner, 60, a Portman supporter. “I love seeing young people being involved.”
Resident Sharon Lowry, who held a fundraiser for Portman at her house during his first Senate campaign, said going door-to-door is a great way for campaigns to find out what concerns everyday people.
Bliss said the Portman campaign is currently using data to target voters who may plan to vote for a Democrat for president but could be persuaded to re-elect Portman. When asked if that was out of concern about presumptive GOP presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, Bliss said, “We built our campaign like you build a small business plan, to succeed in any environment.”
Smith’s concerns about micro-targeting go beyond privacy. He says it attaches narrow labels to people who may in fact have broad interests and opinions that aren’t easy to pigeonhole.
“If they go down the road too far it’s just going to continue this polarization problem that we continue to see,” he said.
“When the campaigns get down to that level of specifically identifying unique characteristics of individuals and precincts and counties, are they really losing the ability to put together an overall message that can bring groups of people together?”
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