By the time this November’s presidential race is over, President Donald Trump and his rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, could raise as much as $2 billion as they plug away online and through limited physical rallies to reach citizens and get them to vote either in person or by mail.
Behind each candidate’s advertising, social media messaging, and turn-out-the-vote effort is a data operation that meticulously tracks not only past patterns of voters, but a vast array of demographic, consumer and behavioral data about them. Plus, the data operation figures out the best of multiple ways to reach the voters and predicts who’s likely to vote or be swayed on specific topics and policies.
Top executives behind each party’s data efforts claim theirs is better and will produce winners on Election Day.
The Republican National Committee says its database and models that assign voter scores as well as track how voters react to political advertising and other messages are superior to the Democrats’ and helped produce a winner in 2016 when Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.
Democrats stung by the loss in 2016 — even Clinton blamed the Democratic National Committee’s poor data practices — say they have rebuilt their operation and point to successes in the 2018 midterm elections when Democratic candidates beat their Republican rivals in congressional races to win a majority in the House.
While it’s impossible for any outsider to adjudicate which party has the better data operation, one indicator of how well each party is using its underlying data infrastructure is to look at online advertising and fundraising efforts, says Laura Edelson, a researcher at the online political transparency project of New York University.
“I can say that in general Donald Trump has a more sophisticated digital ad operation in terms of how the economics are monitored and he has a better cost per click than Joe Biden,” Edelson says. On the other hand, generally speaking, “Democratic candidates have better operations than Republican candidates,” she says.
Edelson says she draws her assessment from tracking social media campaigns that are used by both parties and candidates to seek donations as well as build lists of potential voters and the issues they most care about.
It’s likely that the Republican Party and its candidates other than Trump are applying their data-driven models to non-social media strategies that “wouldn’t be visible to me,” Edelson says.
Rebuilding since 1996
The Republican National Committee has been painstakingly building its database on voters going back to 1996, when its candidate, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, lost to Democratic incumbent Bill Clinton, says Ellen Bredenkoetter, RNC’s chief data officer.
The party went county by county, collected physical voter records and updated them with phone numbers, birth dates and other demographic details as the database went digital, and it is now updated with details on a quarterly basis, Bredenkoetter says.
Election observers credited Trump’s successful 2016 campaign partly on its ability to microtarget small groups of voters on social media platforms based on voters’ likes, dislikes and policy preferences. The microtargeting effort stemmed from the George W. Bush presidential campaign.
The RNC database is now regularly updated with feedback from polling and surveys conducted by Republican campaigns across the country, from local to national level, Bredenkoetter says.
That effort is continuing, and the RNC’s data operation now scores voters on a weekly basis on how likely they are to vote, or cast an absentee ballot, and support a Republican candidate, Bredenkoetter says.
When CQ Roll Call recently published an article on the DNC’s data operation in which its chief technology officer, Nellwyn Thomas, discussed the party’s predictive model that assigns probabilities to how likely a voter is to answer a phone call, and its efforts to buy and add millions of cellphone records to its database, Bredenkoetter mocked the DNC’s claims on Twitter.
“The @DNC continuing its habit of bragging about all of a sudden doing things the @RNCData team has been doing for literally decades. 2010 called and wants its innovations back...,” Bredenkoetter tweeted.
Cadre of data specialists
The RNC has invested about $350 million in its data operations since 2013 and has trained a cadre of data specialists at the regional and state levels who work alongside polling directors and field staff typically found in any campaign, she says.
The RNC trains campaign volunteers and outside activists on how to use its data and models, and how to localize them to their efforts. The committee now boasts dozens of data specialists at the local, state and national levels, she says.
The RNC’s data and its models are freely available to all Republican candidates from the “president down to the city council candidate,” and the party does not charge any of its candidates for the data, unlike the DNC, Bredenkoetter says.
“We are way ahead of the Democrats and give candidates early access to the data from the get-go,” which is a “big contrast between the RNC and DNC,” she says. The Trump campaign’s digital outreach based on the RNC data is likely to surpass that of President Barack Obama’s 2012 digital efforts, Bredenkoetter says.
The RNC may boast of its data operations, but results matter, says Chris Meagher, deputy communications director for the DNC.
“While Republicans talk a big game on data and targeting, actual results show a different story,” Meagher says. “Look at their track record in the Trump era — the trend line shows they have a losing record over the last three years, and it’s going to get worse come November.”
While Meagher declined to say how much the DNC has spent on its data operation, he says that “data and technology are mechanisms for reaching Americans with that message and engaging them in the democratic process. We look forward to continuing that work by electing Joe Biden as president in November.”
The DNC says its data operation dates back to the early 2000s and the committee only charges campaigns for access to data during the presidential primaries process. Other campaigns at the local, state and national levels get access to the data for free, the DNC says.
Despite all the chest-thumping about whose data operation is better, the digital wizardry can get a candidate only so far, Bredenkoetter says.
“Ultimately, data and campaign tactics are field goals, not a touchdown,” she says. Other factors like the state of the economy, the overall climate of the election cycle and the appeal of candidates make a difference, she says.
In 2016, “our data didn’t beat the DNC data,” she says. “Trump beat Hillary Clinton.”