A Foretaste of 2014: Data-Driven Voter Targeting in Virginia’s Race for Governor

Be sure to check out Ben Pershing and Fredrick Kunkle’s Post examination of voter targeting in the race for Virginia governor:

Republican Ken Cuccinelli II and Democrat Terry McAuliffe are running parallel scavenger hunts for Virginians inclined to their side but not yet certain to show up on Election Day.

Both are trying to mimic the methodology of President Obama, whose highly technical field operations last year and in 2008 drew unprecedented numbers of Virginia voters. Both are lobbing relentless attacks at the other designed primarily to stoke their own sides. And as they prepare this Labor Day weekend to enter the last, frenzied stretch of the nation’s premier political contest of 2013, both think that in this low-turnout election, the winner will be the candidate best able to motivate his base.

McAuliffe and Cuccinelli’s particular fight will be over in two months, but 2014 looks right now to be a similar struggle, i.e. more like a typical low-turnout mid-term than 2010’s wave election. If that’s true, Republicans would still be favored, since 1) the president’s party usually loses seats in a midterm, and 2) older, more-conservative voters tend to actually show up (then of course, there’s the gerrymandering). But if 2014 IS relatively low-turnout, a small extra bump in numbers for one side or another can also make a big difference in the final vote percentages. Learning from Obama’s success in voter-targeting, campaigns on both will try to use data to contact the voters whose appearance at the polls could put them over the top.

At the moment, Democrats have the advantage on that front, in part because of the example (and skilled staff) of Obama 2012 but also because of a robust data infrastructure and technology ecosystem built up over the past several election cycles. Note that when we talk about infrastructure, we’re talking about a voter file with turnout history and other data added:

The list includes information about more than a million Virginia voters who engaged with the state party or the Obama campaign in 2012. And it contains demographic and consumer information that allows strategists to form detailed profiles of voters and draw up the right message and use the right medium — Facebook, Gmail — to call attention to a race that few are watching.

One key activity the file will drive: canvassing.

When the time comes, Mack and his [McAuliffe field] team will be ready, he said. “The lists, the way they’re designed right now, are of likely Democratic voters who need a little encouragement to get out.” If there’s one thing McAuliffe’s campaign understands, he added, it’s the importance of proper targeting.

The Post article’s not one-sided; it also follows a Republican canvassing operation in the DC suburbs and quotes a Republican skeptical of the Democrats’ data operation (though he’s also skeptical of the current McAuliffe-leaning polls…shades of Romney’s “skewed poll” self-delusion?). And as the authors note, tactics aren’t everything: the candidates’ own records and reputations — and current Governor Bob McDonnell’s ethical problems — determine Virginia’s basic political terrain and establish the constraints in which the dueling turnout operations can work.

The same will be true in the struggle for control of Congress next year, as state parties, individual campaigns and outside groups spend tens of millions of dollars targeting their voters and working to get them to the polls. Balanced against their skills and resources will be the political fundamentals, including the relative popularity of Barack Obama and the Republicans in Congress and the basic demographics of individual congressional districts and those states up for grabs. For both sides, campaigning matters, but even the best political targeting in the world is useless if you can’t find enough people willing to be persuaded. Remember that as this fall’s national political fights play out.

Disclaimer: Terry McAuliffe’s digital director, Alex Kellner, is a friend.


Written by
Colin Delany
View all articles
1 comment