This is increasingly becoming an important and potentially costly part of campaigns as more data about the electorate and more sophisticated tools for analyzing that data become available.
The state voter files have traditionally provided the foundation for the data sets, but they contain many inaccuracies and come in a range of unwieldy formats. Only a handful of entities have the capacity to quickly integrate all that data into a usable format. A number of data firms directly or indirectly affiliated with one of the parties (like i360 and Data Trust on the right and Catalist on the left) compile these data sets into manageable formats and append additional and updated information where possible. The clear value of scale in this context has the potential to concentrate influence in a small number of hands.
NationBuilder’s Election Center, which makes its compiled voter file freely available in a standardized form, presents one model to limit the advantage of campaigns that are better financed or favored by the parties. There is tremendous value for candidates, however, in limiting the availability of these data to political allies and preventing political opponents from obtaining it, so it would seem that the parties are likely to remain the default gatekeepers if there are to be centralized vaults.
Another important consideration is the nature of the data presented via these platforms. Campaigns need to focus their outreach efforts; they consistently look for registered and high-propensity voters likely to support their candidates. This has led to certain groups and certain information consistently getting deprioritized or excluded altogether. For example, whether an individual is US or foreign born and what their preferred language is are both attributes reported by state registrars but rarely (if ever) featured in these platforms. Strategies that could be effectively applied to immigrant origin groups like Latinos and Asians are often disadvantaged as a result.
Many commercial companies have access to significantly more data regarding people and their habits, preferences, etc. There are major privacy concerns around the use of this data, so larger companies (Facebook, Google, etc.) are very reluctant to risk a PR fiasco and their users’ trust by sharing relevant data with campaigns.
Data gathering is only one part of the process, however. Software that runs statistical models based on complex algorithms to analyze the data is critical to leveraging its value. The ability to build and apply such modeling software is generally the domain of sophisticated and well-paid campaign consultancy firms that often have proprietary modeling tools. Many of the most successful of these firms (which also provide bundled services that are discussed in the sections on Crafting Messaging and Disseminating Media) are growing very quickly and it is likely that gaining access to those talents will prove more of a barrier for underfunded campaigns than gaining access to the data itself. One of our domain experts suggested that “encouraging more math, computer science, and statistics majors to get involved on the local level – and encouraging campaigns to actively seek volunteers and staff with those backgrounds” – could help diminish that advantage.
Some non-profit groups, such as the Voter Participation Center, are developing models with algorithms for these purposes and making them available for use by select other entities. In other contexts, groups like Code for America have led collaborative efforts that leverage top-tier coders to voluntarily build open-source technology solutions for effective government services.1
The norms, best practices and policies in this space are yet to be firmly established. There is extensive research that shows how corporations develop norms and best practices in new areas, so a concerted effort to influence standards or norms now could have a major influence on the trajectory of how this aspect of campaigning evolves.
Director, Political Reform Program, New America
The single most promising means to strengthen the power of people in democracy is to reduce the costs of assets that every campaign needs, which can be done by putting them in the public domain. The voter file has always been an asset that gave parties and, increasingly, large donors control of the process. Putting the voter file in the public domain is almost as powerful as putting money in the public domain, through public financing and small-donor matching.
Chancellor’s Professor, UC Berkeley / Principal and Co-Founder, American Majority Project Research Institute
Demography is not destiny. The current data infrastructure contains significant biases and provides the best information about white, likely voters. Changing this infrastructure is critically important but it must be done with an explicit focus on addressing those biases. It is not by accident that we are where we are in terms of whose voices are heard and whose information matters. Thus we need to address the stratification and power underlying what are seen as “neutral” data systems. Only then will real change be possible.
Executive Director, Lincoln Network
Addressing the gathering and organization of voter information, campaigns can better utilize such information to craft an effective campaign. However, I think the greater power of this facet of the People Powered Playbook is that it can create better representation of the general public. Campaigns want to win elections; they are incentivized to get out voter populations that allow them to achieve there ends. A neutral organization whose only goal is to get out the general public to vote would help them achieve a more representative elected body of officials.
Former Field Organizer, Obama for America / Co-Founder of Resident Association of Greater Englewood
The quality of voter data is of supreme value. The true value of partisan services like NGP VAN is that campaigns who have access to them benefit from the updates and additions (addresses changes, emails, etc.) made by previous campaigns. Those who do not have access to the VAN spend tremendous resources discovering that voters have moved and must build their own email list from scratch. Anything that increases the ROI of a people powered campaign must address the data quality and richness competitive advantage of the partisan voter files while somehow accommodating the fact that people powered campaigns may be diametrically opposed on questions of policy. That is, do I want people with whom I fundamentally disagree to have access to the email addresses and updated contact information that I enter into this tool?
Former Senior Director, Code for America
This might be one area where the people actually fight you on reform. The tricky privacy and security concerns will make this a hard campaign element to a) galvanize public support for and b) establish workable policy around.
Anton Vonk Associate Professor of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara
Figuring out how to democratize the collection, dissemination, and use of data in campaigns is fundamental to ensuring that candidates of all kinds are playing on the same playing field.
Executive Director, MoveOn.org Political Action
It’s definitely critical that parties provide access to data to all candidates within their party, even in multi candidate fields to level the playing field and even when there are challengers taking on incumbents.
Founder, The New American Leaders Project
Although I think existing voter files have many problems, heavy reliance on prime voters and tried-and-true walk lists make it hard for change in the foreseeable future. Using technology, emphasizing demographic changes, and finding ways to reduce the costs of in-person voter contact might help increase the potential for a People Powered campaign, however.
Visiting Professor of Political Science, Yale University
Information is power, and this is no less true in the context of political campaigns. Yet protecting privacy is paramount. Campaigns need to weigh electoral considerations and incentives against citizens’ rights and expectations.
All answers: 1 = strongly disagree / 5 = strongly agree
How much do the conventional tactics for achieving this objective influence how reliant campaigns feel on narrow subsets as opposed to broad cross-sections of the electorate?
How much do you think the tactics for achieving this objective are likely to change in the coming decade?
How much opportunity do you see for advancing more People Powered tactics for achieving this objective via each lever?
Increase People Powered ROI
Decrease Conventional ROI