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Digging for voters with Big Data

Every presidential campaign seems to come with a new technological twist. In 2008, it was social media. This time, it's all about using Big Data to deliver voters. There's more of it than ever and campaigns are smarter than ever about using it.

This week, Marketplace is collaborating with Frontline for a series called Big Sky, Big Money. Today, we go on the hunt to find out just how Romney and Obama are using all those digital breadcrumbs we leave behind to find us.

Before the debates, before the rallies and the speeches and the millions of dollars in political ads, the hunt for voters begins at places like Aristotle. Inc., one of the most powerful political data-mining firms in the country. It's got two-inch steel doors, security cameras and a biometric censor.

Democrats and Republicans have been buying voter data from Aristotle since Ronald Reagan ran for president. And this election they're buying more than ever. John Phillips is the CEO. He says elections are like one-day sales.

"You've got to get all of the shoppers to the store there on one day and it's hard to argue that balloons and emery boards are an effective way to get people to vote," he says.

What's effective, Phillips says, is when a candidate can make every political message feel like a personal conversation. And to do that you need to know as much about the person you're talking to as possible. What makes this election different, is that campaigns know more about us than ever. And more than you'd probably want them to. He explains how targeting works. He says there's up to 500 data points candidates can analyze and plug into algorithms.

Phillips says to think of it as the DNA of the electorate. Everything from the standard -- ethnicity, what the census says -- to the not-so-standard, like whether someone's a big-game hunter or a turkey hunter.

The goal for both campaigns is use that data to reveal something about what drives us to vote one way or another.

"You may not vote Republican because you drive a Corvette but there may be a correlation between people who own Corvette and voting behavior," says Phillips. "And if there is, they're going to exploit that correlation they're going to be trying to find as many Corvette owners as they can if it turns out that that's a profile of an independent voter in Ohio."

Ohio: a key battleground state. Today, I'm in Columbus, at one of Obama's field offices where a group of Ohio State University students are getting ready to knock on doors and do some old-fashioned political canvassing. But along with pens and clipboards, these students are armed with some of the most sophisticated digital tools out there. For the 2012 Obama campaign, it's called Dashboard.

"These flags are the voters," says Ashley Bryant, Obama's digital director for Ohio. "These are the doors that you could potentially knock."

She's showing me how the students can use Dashboard today. It's kind of a one-stop-shop for political organizing and voter data. When these OSU canvassers knock on doors, they don't just know who they will be talking to, but they'll have a customized message based on all the big data information the Obama campaign has gathered: Did they donate to Obama last year? Do they vote in every election? Did this person work at one of Ohio's revitalized manufacturing plants? Is he a strong supporter or a lean supporter or a voter still on the fence?

So for undecided voters, the more these canvassers know about them, the more tailored that pitch is going to be.

It may sound a little weird but Bryant insists, "Well, it's not we're not going to say, 'Hey we saw you at the movies last night...'"

But if you tell a canvasser you were at the movies last night, say a political documentary, that bit of information could be headed straight into the Obama campaign's giant data pool in Chicago, along with anything else you may reveal.

"Now we're at a place where if you're doing something with a clipboard or you're doing something from a mobile app, if you're in Virginia or if you're in Ohio, it's all going into one big system and then you know once that information is there," Bryant says. "It's able to be researched and analyzed and figure out what are the buckets."

"Bucket" is a term both campaigns use to categorize different kinds of voters. Are you a supporter who'll donate money? That puts you in one bucket. Are you voting for the other guy? That's a different one.

But the most valuable bucket of all-is the one filled with undecided voters. They could be the key to the election, for the campaign that can finds them. The question is how.

"For the Romney campaign, we have determined that if we only rely on national television we will lose the election," says Zach Moffat, Romney's national digital director. Moffatt says the heart of the campaign's digital strategy is to reach voters he calls "off-the-gridders" -- people who can't be reached by traditional campaign methods.

"They don't think of "Modern Family" as starting at 8 o'clock on Wednesday," says Moffat. "They think of it as starting when they turn on their DVR box. And they don't think of it as 30 minutes, they think of it as 22 minutes with 8 minutes of fast forwarding."

Which means they're missing a lot of expensive political ads. Moffatt says as many as a third of the electorate fits this category. Obama does this in-house. Romney outsources to a private interactive ad agency Moffat help co-found. It's called Targeted Victory.

Michael Beach is Targeted Victory's co-founder. He says data allows them to pinpoint the most effective ad for a voter to see.

"Think of it less that we're buying a channel, that we're buying an audience," says Beach. "And so we're not interested in where the ad runs but who it runs to, and that flips the whole mass marketing tradition on its head."

So if Targeted Victory figures out that I'm an Off-the-Gridder who supports Romney, I may see one ad:

But if I'm an Independent, I might see something like this:

But unlike TV, watching this ad online and then maybe sharing it on Facebook or Twitter gives both campaigns valuable information about voters, which they can then store and use later.

"You know, how you engage with an ad or how long you watch an ad or anything like that is feedback that tells the campaigns 'Hey that this is the right message or that this is not the right message' so that can change what a campaign decides to deliver in the future," says Beach.

Because while the 2012 presidential election ends next week, there's always 2016 to think about.

About the author

Hari Sreenivasan is an online and on-air correspondent for PBS NewsHour.
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All of these emerging big data technologies are truly amazing. Anyone interested in big data applications should check out Moonshadow Mobile's Ground Game 2. It is incredibly powerful and easy to use. The application contains an extensive voter database and has features that allow you to preform quick demographic targeting for canvassing and gives you the ability to efficiently collect location based data.

http://www.moonshadowmobile.com/data-visualization/ground-game-mobile-ca...

"Phillips says to think of it as the DNA of the electorate. Everything from the standard -- ethnicity, what the census says -- to the not-so-standard, like whether someone's a big-game hunter or a turkey hunter".

The implication of this statement is that Mr. Phillips and Aristotle can somehow access Census Bureau data for specific individuals. It is not the case.

Aristotle can make up the data for individuals based on data that are published for groups (and pretend to their customers that these are actual data, I suppose), but they may not use individuals' Census data records.

In my experience with the Census Bureau, they take issues of personal data privacy very seriously.

I was surprised to see how much data is being collected about each of us. Is it legal? Aren't my votes and my contributions and the like private?

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