Data is hugely important to politics—for fundraising, sure—but also for getting registered voters to the polls. Ahead of the 2014 midterm election, state and local candidates are using tools the presidential campaigns pioneered two years ago, and they are testing out technology designed to get out the vote in 2016.
In his office at NGP VAN, the company’s CEO and president, Stu Trevelyan, shows off a new “social organizing tool.” Many Democratic campaigns use NGP VAN’s technology. Trevelyan and his colleagues have created what he calls “a virtual phone bank.” A campaign will use your Facebook profile to find friends of yours in competitive districts.
“I grew up in Massachusetts. I know a lot of people there,” Trevelyan explains. “I went to college in California. I know lots of people there. I can actually identify people from that district and actually begin calling them.”
The thinking is you are more likely to take advice from someone you know. Campaigns are trying to tap into what’s called “social capital.” Until recently, campaigns relied on actual phone banks, and volunteers on the ground, going door-to-door.
“So there were a lot of clipboards and a lot of paper, and frankly, a lot of data that didn’t get used,” Trevelyan says.
According to David Nickerson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, it is now common for a canvasser to carry a smart phone. An app will have a script; afterward, the volunteer can punch in some important information. “And that data is automatically uploaded with a time stamp, and then it gives you the next household you are supposed to go to,” says Nickerson, noting new technology makes it easier for campaigns to allocate resources better.
“You do that next round of calls, you can remove all the dead wood,” he says. “Or if the people said they didn’t support, you can make sure that you don’t knock on them again.”
Campaigns are also trying out new tools to get a sense of what voters are still up for grabs.
“Through the use of statistical modeling and surveys and experiments, it is now possible to really focus efforts on people who are most likely to change their mind if contacted,” says Patrick Ruffini, a Republican strategist with Echelon Insights.
The digital landscape is constantly changing, he says. Last time around, social media was not the primary way for campaigns to communicate with likely voters directly. By 2016, it may be, and campaign strategists like Ruffini and Trevelyan want to refine new tools before the next presidential election.