Yes We Can (Profile You): A Brief Primer on Campaigns and Political Data

Campaigns are increasingly tailoring political communications down to narrowly defined segments of the electorate, even as they undermine privacy and democratic practice.
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During the summer of 2011, media consultants working for Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann rolled out an online video advertising campaign. Only Republicans likely to caucus living within one hundred miles of Ames, Iowa saw these videos urging them to attend the city's straw poll, which Bachman subsequently won. Meanwhile, through sophisticated voter modeling, targeted communications based on voters' political interests, and tracking the attitudes of supporters over the course of two campaigns, Romney's campaign orchestrated his near victory in the 2012 Iowa caucuses.

Data plays an increasingly large role in campaigning, especially in the ways that candidates communicate with the electorate. Campaigns have a vast array of new means to craft, deliver, and measure the effectiveness of strategic communications. Underlying all of this is a vast data infrastructure that makes targeted online advertising and marketing possible, as well as has contributed to a revival of field campaigning over the last decade.

These data practices both increase participation and voter turnout, even as they undermine privacy and democratic practice.

Both parties, as well as a host of commercial firms, have amassed enormous national voter databases that they maintain and provide to candidates from mayor to president for their efforts to increase the turnout of their supporters and persuade the undecided. There are a number of different sources of this political data. The core of these databases is public data which includes information such as party registration, voting history, political donations, vehicle registration, and real estate records. This data is supplemented with commercial information such as magazine subscription records, credit histories, and even grocery "club card" purchases. This data is continually updated during campaigns through the efforts of thousands of volunteers. During the 2008 presidential election, Obama's millions of volunteer field canvassers gathered over 223 million pieces of information from citizens that are now stored in a database owned by the Democratic Party. The parties carry all of this data across election cycles and make it available to their candidates running for office at all levels of government, who in turn continually update the voter files.

Increasingly, databases that contain information about sign ups on email lists and 'friends' of candidates on Facebook are being integrated with the large-scale voter files detailed above. While it is difficult to have an accurate picture of an in-progress campaign, it is clear that the integration of databases to deliver more targeted communications and strategize the ground game is a key theme of the 2012 cycle. The firm Campaign Grid, for instance, is actively matching voter databases, including the Republican Party's, to the online registration data of its multiple partner sites. This allows the firm's clients to deliver video, display, and search advertising to targeted segments of, and even individual, voters. This approach to voter modeling helps campaigns more effectively target its fieldwork and online advertising. Campaigns can now target priority individuals residing in districts dominated by the opposing party, and are able to find and focus their efforts on neighborhoods with low voter turnout but high numbers of likely supporters.

This proliferation of political data both increases mobilization and turnout and undermines political privacy and threatens democratic practice.

There are enormous informational asymmetries in the contemporary use of data that has implications for political competitiveness, discourse, and representation. Political data and the consulting services necessary to render it actionable are not cheap. Well-endowed candidates, both in terms of money and deep-pocketed allies, have a competitive advantage in their ability to purchase comprehensive voter data and sophisticated modeling and targeting services. Even more, parties determine whom they provide data to, and have locked out insurgent competitors to the party's establishment in primaries.

Campaigns also use data to actively and non-transparently shape political discourse. Campaigns routinely redline the electorate, ignoring individuals they model as unlikely to vote, such as unregistered, uneducated, and poor voters. Campaign volunteers do not show up on these voters' doorsteps and, if they live in electorally undesirable areas, candidates do not come to their neighborhoods. Furthermore, with the merging of databases, the information environments that these citizens inhabit are increasingly qualitatively different from those of their politically-engaged peers, completely unbeknownst to them. Disengaged citizens are less likely to see political advertising given that campaigns do not spend resources on voters not likely to vote.

At the same time, candidates can increasingly choose not only which voters they wish to interact with, but the face of their public self to present. Quite apart from who sees a message is the content of that message. Campaigns are increasingly tailoring political communications down to narrowly defined segments of the electorate, and even individuals, through direct mail, online advertisements, and face-to-face voter contact. This means that campaigns can develop narrow appeals based on ideology and self-interest and direct them to different groups of voters, appearing to be all things to all people.

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