New Breed of Campaigns Using Technology to Micro-Target Voters

by Aarti Shahani

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As election day inches closer, campaign workers are entering high gear with door-knocking and phone-banking. This year, they’re also reducing paper cuts by using new digital technologies to reach voters. But the true value of the latest election apps, of course, will turn on whether they get out the vote.

East Bay congressional candidate Eric Swalwell, whose campaign is using the latest get-out-the-vote-technology

East Bay congressional candidate Eric Swalwell, whose campaign is using the latest get-out-the-vote-technology. Photo: Cy Musiker/KQED

Door Knocking Goes Digital

Ariel Kelley, a local campaign director with a group working for San Francisco supervisorial candidate David Lee, is sipping coffee at a neighborhood cafe in the city’s Richmond district. Tapping the floor with her 3-inch heels, Kelley watches her door-knocking team from a website on her MacBook.

“I get to see in real time exactly where they are, using the GPS on the cell phone that they’re holding. This is Charlie’s territory right here,” she says, referring to a volunteer out in the field.

Kelley is monitoring Charlie’s every move on Anza and Balboa. She sees the name, age and party of the targeted voter, plus the exact time – down to the microsecond – of the visit. Kelley sees the encounter is over when a green dot turns into a red check mark.

She clicks over to a spreadsheet logging ballot measures and candidates.

“It basically says which member of my team talked to which specific voter, how that voter is feeling about our candidate, and…answers to a survey that we’re asking them to do.”

Kelley says the digital door-knocking app helps her react quicker.

“So if we’re seeing people all of a sudden aren’t supporting our candidate, or there’s a strong feeling about a particular issue, we can then adapt based on that information.”

Candidates can lose just because their canvassers don’t have time to tally paper logs, says Kelley.

Nicco Mele is a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. Mele says mobile technology is revamping the election toolkit.

“If I was going to be radical, I’d say that polling is eventually going to disappear cause you’re simply not going to need to sample anymore. You’ll have such immediate house-by-house data based on digital reporting.

2012 Cottage Industry

Ralph Garvin, a Stanford-trained computer scientist, is part of a cottage industry in San Francisco that has arisen in response to the 2012 election cycle. “Kind of funny, huh, that when you save people hundreds of hours of work, that has dollar value associated with it.”

Garvin’s start-up, called Organizer, and others like Votizen, have raised millions from venture capitalists by pitching the idea that micro-messaging might one day overtake mass media.

“You can go to the door and show someone a video that is tailored to that person’s demographic. The more I can send a message to you, that is about you, the higher chance I have of resonating with people that care about the issues that I care about.”

In the name of marketing, the 2012 campaigns are testing the limits of privacy. Presidential candidates are mining vacation histories and mortgage payments, just so their campaign workers can get really personal.

Harvard professor Mele says elections are a time to experiment.

“Just like Kennedy put on makeup to go on television to debate Richard Nixon and had a real impact, the candidates and the party that figures out how to use social media and emerging technologies to their advantage will win.”

The New Guy

Eric Swalwell is standing at a doorway in Pleasanton, which his iPhone app told him to visit.

“Hi, I’m Eric Swalwell, I’m running for the U.S. Congress. And running against 40-year incumbent Pete Stark.”

The 31-year-old candidate is among a growing minority of new politicians nationwide who are using technology to try to take down better-known opponents.

“I think Congress is broken and you deserve new energy and ideas…” says Swalwell.

“Hopefully, if you get in, you’ll continue doing what you say you’re gonna do, which most of them don’t do,” says his targeted voter.

When they’re done, Swalwell logs the elderly male as a “yes” on his phone and heads to the next address, where nobody’s home.

“We can track the higher performing voters, but not to tell us if they’re home,” says Swalwell. “That would be nice. A little intrusive, but nice.”

Swalwell has also purchased a Facebook app tailored to promote his candidacy by volunteers.

David Bruns of Castro Valley logs in to share a Swalwell article on his wall. The app rewards him for every personalized message he posts.

“As you progress through here, it gives you points,” Bruns says, showing me the app.

I asked him if he really cared how many points he earned.

“I don’t want to be last. Somebody else that was on here was Otto,” he says, citing the Swalwell campaign’s leading points earner. “[He] had 2,000, or something along those lines.”

I point out that Otto actually has around 7,000 points.

“I have a lot to do, I guess,” says Bruns.

According to social media research published in the journal Nature, Facebook messages were tied to 280,000 additional votes cast in 2010. Bruns says this new tool will empower him to evangelize for Swalwell on a whole new level.

“As the kind of underdog in the race, he doesn’t have as much name recognition. He hasn’t been in the Congress for 40 years. And so I can put a little bit of that trust that my friends have with me into them with Eric, even though they don’t have a relationship with Eric necessarily like I do.”

Of course, Bruns won’t know until November 6th just how many friends he’s converted.