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Campaign 2012: Mining for voters

Robert L. Mitchell | Oct. 30, 2012
Big data, analytics and mobile apps are enabling smaller political campaigns and advocacy groups to be more effective when it comes to winning over voters and raising money.

Political candidates aren't the only ones hoping to sway voters this election season; plenty of other groups are engaging in campaigns -- and those efforts are increasingly driven by big data, even at smaller organizations with limited resources.

The Sierra Club, for instance, doesn't have the resources of a national presidential campaign. Unlike the Obama for America campaign, it can't hire a small army of predictive analysts and data scientists to model every aspect of its election-year strategy. But the nonprofit is using data mining to identify swing voters who are most likely to be motivated by its environmental message -- and who are most likely to be moved to vote for the candidates the club has endorsed in the 2012 election.

What politicians know about you

By combining voter records with their own donor lists, consumer databases and online information, political campaigns and advocacy groups can assemble highly detailed databases with hundreds of fields, or bits of information, that describe each voter's party affiliation, likes and dislikes, socio-economic background and more. This data comes from sources such as these:

State voter registration rolls. These lists include voters' names and addresses, as well as registration status, party affiliation and voting history.

Consumer databases. Available for purchase from third-party marketing firms, these databases contain socio-economic and demographic data, including details such as information about people's hobbies, interests, lifestyles and magazine subscriptions.

Campaign donor and volunteer databases. These repositories include people's names, street addresses, email addresses, contribution histories (with the dollar amounts of their donations) and volunteer activities. They might even contain information about civic actions people have taken, such as signing petitions.

Miscellaneous online sources, including websites and social networks like Facebook, Groupon, Twitter and LinkedIn. Records of people's activities on social media sites represent a rich source of psychographic data (interests, hobbies, lifestyles). That information is integrated with data from traditional sources through a process called cookie matching, by scraping sites for information or by encouraging voters to self-identify, which they do when they, for example, like a campaign or advocacy group's page or click through to the campaign's website and respond to a request for a donation.

For the Sierra Club and organizations like it, the objective isn't to win at any cost, but to win cost-effectively.

"We target both people who might sit the election out unless sufficiently motivated and folks who may be undecided with a message that will be effective," says Sierra Club political director Cathy Duvall. In this way, the organization doesn't waste resources reaching out to voters who are already on board or those who are unlikely to be persuaded. "We have a more clean shot at the voters we want, and in most cases the return on investment is immediate," she says.


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