June 19th, 2008
Updated January, 2011
Political databases generally don’t get a whole lot of attention in the press or in public, but they underlie much of the technology of modern politics. Email advocacy and fundraising systems are really just specialized examples of CRM (customer/constituent/contact management) software, while blogs and website content management systems are database-driven, as are online ad serving systems. Robocalls, phone banks and direct mail depend on databases of voter registration and consumer behavior, and database experts frequently spend large amounts of time sorting their lists and testing different messages and asks.
CRM systems help organizations and campaigns communicate with large numbers of supporters to encourage online advocacy, fundraising and real-world behavior. Some CRMs focus on email advocacy, others on fundraising, others on newsletter delivery or project management. Sophisticated political systems may incorporate social networking outreach features, regulatory reporting features (for campaign contributions or lobbying expenses) and media- and lobby-contact management. You usually pay for what you get, though several lower-cost, higher-feature systems are becoming available. One development for 2008 and 2010 — the major political parties and the presidential campaigns are investing heavily in database-driven systems to increase the efficiency of block-canvassing and other local volunteer activities. In fact, the volunteer-generated data that the Obama campaign was able to gather in 2008 at times provided a better sense of an upcoming vote’s outcome than polling data did. Watch for database-driven systems to become increasingly important in organizing real-world political action, helping to turn online energy into offline activity.
For more on choosing a particular CRM for your needs, see the “Tools, Time and Resources” chapter of the Winning in 2010 guide.
Most activism-related CRM systems will allow list members to be sorted by their behavior — the number of actions they take, the amount and frequency with which they donate, etc. Identifying your super-activists can let you create special programs intended for them alone and which frequently reward them with access or recognition. Cultivating super-activists (or super-volunteers or super-donors) is time-consuming, but particularly for campaigns or groups with large lists, it can really pay off over the long haul. Organizing effectively on online social networks such as MySpace and Facebook frequently also relies on the work of super-activists; for more, see the chapter on Social Networking.
One database-related topic occasionally mentioned in the press is microtrgeting, which almost always seems to have both a gee-whiz air and a slight whiff of evil about it. At a basic level, microtargeting involves the tailoring of communications based on the particular characteristics of the potential recipient — sending different messages to different people based on who they are or what their interests are.
Microtargeting enthusiasts sometimes talk about the sophisticated merging of voter files and consumer databases, for instance to target voters by cross-referencing their magazine subscriptions and the kind of of car they own to identify a particular group that’s open to a selected message (for instance, direct mail people sometimes boast of sending different mailings to each address on a given block). But the actual benefits of such fine-grained targeting seem to fall off pretty quickly — most electoral campaigns are happy enough with voter addresses and past political affiliation, with a bonus for lists of union members, past political donors, volunteers for past political campaigns, etc. Note that if you’re running for elected office in the U.S., the national parties are developing and fielding systems to put voter information in the hands of their candidates at all levels.
A number of vendors and polling firms also offer what seem to be quite sophisticated microtargeting-based voter/donor outreach, but I’ve also heard experienced direct mail database people say that the by far the best predictor of a person’s propensity to give money to a campaigh is his or her past history of donating — people who’ve donated before are more likely to donate again. In that case it doesn’t take a whole lot of sorting to determine if you have your hands on the right data. So, consider microtargeting if it seems like a good fit, but make sure you’re paying for information that’s actually useful.
Making Your Case with Data
Speaking of useful data, another way you can employ it politically is to enlist it directly in your cause. Advocacy groups in particular have latched on to the idea using of data as an online persuasive tool through custom web applications, Google Maps and other mashups, interactive Flash presentations and online video. Essentially, it involves using software to turn information into pictures in a way that’s interesting to viewers, and presenting data well can turn a very dry policy topic into something live and compelling. Most data presentations should be planned very carefully, since they are often significant software projects. See the chapter on Media Relations for a discussion of the use of data to influence journalists and policymakers.