More on Using Databases to Target Potential Supporters

Following up on last week’s manifesto about using databases for political microtargeting, Phil Lepanto from Connections Media has an exhaustive piece (his second on e.politics) about the mechanics of collecting and using data to identify potential supporters. As a friend said the other day, this stuff is definitely a bit Big Brother-creepy, but it’s something that campaigns can’t ignore.

Expanding Your Base Through Databases

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about leveraging the power of databases to increase the capability of organizations or campaigns to “microtarget” audiences. Yet, political journalists and others that cover this industry often seem to gloss over exactly what microtargeting means. So, what does it mean, how is it done, and of course, how much does it cost?

My firm, Connections Media, has done microtargeting for some of our political candidate clients. It can be tough to work with data from a variety of sources, including vendors, call-center operators, and campaign volunteers, but the results can be impressive. In this article, I want to give you a sense of an answer for the first two questions, the “what” and the “how” (like anything else in this world, the answer to the question about cost is simple — “How much do you want to pay?”). I’ll also share some tips with you at the end, so that as you build your campaign data, you’ll do it in a way that will make integrating databases easier.

I’m going to focus on political campaigns because that’s the sexy stuff, but at some level, these same principles can be applied to other campaigns, for instance nonprofit fundraising or legislative initiatives. We’ll start with the bare-bones of microtargeting and move on to the expensive stuff after that. Finally, I’m going to leave out the related question of targeting advertising, since this article is specifically about gathering and using data.

When it comes to retail politics, the most valuable asset you have is your candidate. She can get out there and “microtarget” her message on the fly to everyone she meets. When she shakes someone’s hand who has a BMW in the driveway, she talks about how her views on taxes will be good for the community. When she stops by a playground to talk to a bunch of parents, she’ll be talking about education. But your candidate can’t be everywhere at once. Microtargeting mailings and messages increases the resonance of your message by appealing to specific characteristics of your audience. But, it can’t be done on the fly — you need information to make it work.

Guess what — right off the bat, you can probably get access to a basic tool, the name and address of every voter in your district. Talk to the Board of Elections for your state or county. The whole world is using computers, and maybe now that it is 2006, some of this information has actually made it into electronic format. Of course, we all know that when it comes to doing things that benefit everyone, BoE offices typically don’t, probably because someone has a vested interest in making it hard for everyone else. With some effort, though, you should be able to get your hands on this really valuable data, which will tell you the party affiliation of each voter and should give you a sense of their voting history over the last few years.

So, now you have the basics of every voter in your target area. Now, let’s work with the data. Maybe you want to find all party members that have voted in the last three primaries and have your volunteers start calling them to ask them to join your campaign. The first “database” that you have access to is the phone book. With online look-up tools, you can sit some of your enthusiastic senior citizens and college students down in front of a laptop and get them to work matching those names and addresses with phone numbers.

Next, let’s assume for a second that as a campaign manager or online campaign director, you are a hired gun from out of town and don’t know anything about the district you are in. There are plenty of database products out there that key census data to zip+4. With them, you’ll have a relational database which you can use to match a field in the voter data to a field in the census data. Race, income, household size, and several other useful items will then allow you to target your mailings or leafleting much more specifically.

The e.politics audience includes everyone from experienced veterans to fresh activists. The preceding paragraphs are fine when you are on a budget and need to make sure that the microtargeting that you do maximizes the efficiency of candidate time, volunteer time, and minimizes your cost. But when you’ve got a candidate that has got money to spend…

If you didn’t realize it already, there is a tremendous industry in this country devoted to helping companies and organizations reach consumers. First, you can hook into the National Change of Address database to make sure the data in your voter file is up-to-date (folks in this country move more often than we have elections). Next, you might be able to purchase or “rent” subscription information from large magazines (or publishing houses) and cross-reference that against your data. This will help you pin down people by interest. You can also talk to like-minded nonprofit organizations or allied politicians, since they might be willing to rent you their pre-screened lists as well. All of this information, through the power of databases, can of course be instantly cross-referenced.

Just like Emeril, you can also kick it up a notch. If you are going to have a polling firm or a telemarketing firm (or even volunteers running a phone bank) call into your voter file looking for more support or to gauge interests, make sure you load the resulting information back into your database. Then, you can microtarget based upon call recipients’ responses. You can go nuts with this stuff. How about working with an outfit like ESRI and having all of your address data geo-coded so you can compare where your supporters live against in-town traffic patterns?

The bottom line to this is that acquiring the initial knowledge and the data is the hard part — working with it once you have it is straightforward. Stewart Brand, creator of The Well, once said that information wants to be free. But in the real world, knowledge and data is expensive, both to buy and to gather on your own. On the political front, the folks best positioned to take advantage of this information are political parties. They operate from year to year and can constantly build and refine their data. Take a look at what the Maryland State Democratic Party is doing this year: they’re offering a great tool that has voter histories, telephone numbers and email addresses to any Democratic candidate in the state. Everything is linked up to census data. It does labels, it does email, it creates walk lists and even has a handy interface for entering data via a bar code reader.

There are other things you can do as well, particularly in the online space. What about getting the most out of your own website and volunteer solicitation? You don’t want to scare folks off by asking them to self-report too much info, but if you can get a name, a street address, and a zip code, then you have something you can match against your data. You’ll get a better sense of who is on your list than if you had just asked for an email address.

While it is distasteful to most every upstanding professional in the business, you can also work with email marketing companies to find email addresses in your district. Again, match them up to your voter file and fire away. Ugh, spamming! Awful stuff, but look: Are you in it to win? There are a lot of nastier things that happen in a political campaign.


Ultimately, what we’re talking about is triangulating data resources for maximum outreach efficiency. [Drop that line in front of the candidate and he’ll either think you’re a genius or know how to make up good jargon.] If you don’t have an enormous amount of money, you can still be creative about where you find information to mesh with data you already have, but then you actually have to do the work of matching it all up yourself. Here are a few tips to make it easier:

  • Reach out to other organizations and public institutions to see what you can find.
    You never know, maybe the DMV has a public database that would let you target every voter with a car that weighs under 3000 pounds (for instance). Doesn’t hurt to ask.
  • Keep zip5 and zip4 data in separate fields in your database.
    This makes for easier and more efficient queries.
  • Keep street numbers and street names for an address separate in your database.
    This makes it easier to generate walk lists and may make it easier to match data you receive from other sources.
  • If the data you receive doesn’t have unique identifiers for each record, have your database generate one during import. If it does, make sure your vendor always sends it along.
    You don’t want to have data intermingle. Just set up relationships between unique identifiers. This keeps data pure by source and makes management easier in the long term.
  • Engage internal staff to centralize data.
    Don’t let an intern with Microsoft Excel hoard great data, like which supporters put up a yard sign, in a crappy spreadsheet. Try to integrate data throughout the entire organization.
  • Monitor the results of your matches.
    Keep logs and records of matches, scan for mistakes and be able to undo matches manually.

Thanks, Phil!


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Written by
Colin Delany
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