The technology that powers the 2020 campaigns, explained

The technology that powers the 2020 campaigns, explained
Campaigns and elections have always been about data—underneath the empathetic promises to fix your problems and fight for your family, it’s a business of metrics. If a campaign is lucky, it will find its way through a wilderness of polling, voter attributes, demographics, turnout, impressions, gerrymandering, and ad buys to connect with voters in a way that moves or even inspires them. Obama, MAGA, AOC—all have had some of that special sauce. Still, campaigns that collect and use the numbers best win.

That’s been true for some time, of course. In 2017, Hillary Clinton lamented that the Democratic National Committee had supplied her team with out-of-date data. She blamed this in part for her loss to Donald Trump, whose campaign sat atop an impressive Republican data-crunching machine. (The DNC retorted that it wasn’t the data, but how it was used, that was inadequate.)

In 2020, campaigns have added new wrinkles to their tactics for gathering and manipulating data. Traditional polling is giving way to AI-powered predictive modeling; massive data exchanges, once considered questionably legal, allow campaigns, PACs, and other groups to coordinate their efforts. And who can forget microtargeting? Both campaigns seek to arm themselves with comprehensive views of each potential voter and are using algorithms to segment and target voters more specifically and strategically. Here is our guide to what’s new and improved, and what it means for you, the voter.

Over the last few years, campaigns have been steadily adding to the vast amount of personal information they keep on voters. That’s partly a result of a practice called acquisition advertising, in which campaigns run direct response ads that seek to get either contact information or opinions straight from a person. As of May, both presidential campaigns were spending upwards of 80% of their ad budgets on direct response ads.

Campaign officials don’t like to talk about exactly how much data they keep—but most voter files probably have somewhere between 500 and 2,500 data points per person. (A voter file is an integral data set that consolidates state-level voter registration info. ) Each ad, phone call, email, and click increases that number. Since the Democratic Data Exchange (or DDx) came online in June, it has aggregated over a billion data points, most of which DDx says is contact information.

Contrary to what one might think, though, many of these personal details come from people who’ve already made up their minds about the candidates. The Trump campaign’s app, for example, allows automatic Bluetooth pairing that can help identify a user’s location—something that has drawn scrutiny. ( in the past.) This kind of surveillance isn’t considered the norm, but it makes sense. People who download a candidate’s app probably already support that candidate, and committed voters are the most likely to donate.

Data exchanges allow campaigns and PACs to share data, making outreach and messaging more efficient and comprehensive. Republicans have used Data Trust since 2013—it’s a one-stop shop that includes an exchange, voter data, and data hosting services. Democrats initially felt this was a violation of Federal Election Commission rules against cooperation between different types of political organizations, such as PACs, nonprofits, and the campaigns themselves. The American Democracy Legal Fund, a democratic group, sued DataTrust and lost … so naturally Democrats spun up their own version. That’s the Democratic Data Exchange that went live in June.

The promise of data exchanges is to let all aligned organizations share data. According to a demo given to the New York Times , DDx can produce a dashboard that shows how comfortable each voter is with voting by mail, and this is shared among all liberal groups in the exchange. In previous years, local canvassing groups, state parties, and issue-oriented PACs might all have been spending money in parallel collecting that kind of information. On the Republican side, Data Trust has proved its worth many times over. For example, it gathered information on voters who cast their ballots early during the 2018 midterm elections. Campaigns stopped reaching out to those people, .

In ancient Rome, slaves were trained to memorize the names of voters who might be persuaded to vote for their master, so that he could find and greet them personally. These days,  the strategy behind personal targeting comes from computer models that can slice the electorate into highly specific groups. Messaging is honed using extensive A/B testing.
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