Good information is creeping out about how Democrat Terry McAuliffe used digital and data tools to win the Virginia governor’s race last week, and you can look for my analysis piece in the next issue of Campaigns & Elections mag. Meanwhile, check out excellent coverage in Politico, starting with Alex Burns on data and Emily Schultheis on digital. Emily and I were both on a call last week held by Virginia Democrats to discuss the role of data in the campaign, BTW, and today I want to dive into an idea that came up in that discussion.
Here’s the concept: creating a “voter data feedback loop” in your field and digital outreach. What’s involved: start with an outreach strategy driven by data analysis. I.e., you use polling, focus groups, demographics, past voting history, etc, to create “data models” of the voters you need to contact to persuade to go to the polls (or persuade to stay home), which you then apply to the voter file to generate a list of people to contact via phone, direct mail or in person. Meanwhile, you use the same models to target your online advertising, using demographic data in Facebook, an ad vendor’s “cookie pool,” etc.
The loop part? As you contact people (or as they click on your ads and join your list), you begin to gather information directly from them. How are they feeling about the candidates? How do they judge their own likelihood to vote? How are they reacting to particular TV ads or mail pieces? What issues are motivating them? What ads are they clicking on? If they’re on your list, what emails are they opening? As you gather these data, you feed them back into the voter file and — here’s the key part — adjust your models (and hence your outreach targeting) accordingly. A voter data feedback loop lets you constantly judge the state of different segments of the electorate, allow you to focus on the voters you absolutely need to reach and helping you use your ad dollars and volunteer time as efficiently as possible.
The Obama 2012 campaign used this approach to target everything from field outreach to TV ads, and it’s no surprise that Virginia Democrats tapped Obama veterans (now at BlueLabs) to set up a similar system for the 2013 Virginia Democratic Coordinated Campaign. (Remember that robust ecosystem of skilled Democratic digital campaigners we’ve talked about here before? This is a perfect example.) McAuliffe had 200 field staff and 13,000 volunteers knocking on the right doors over the weekend before November 5th, even as they flooded the airwaves with ads they KNEW (from talking to voters) were likely to hit the mark. The final margin? 2.5%, significantly closer than the final public polls suggested. I suspect that without that voter data feedback loop, this race could easily have gone the other way.