Republicans Fight to Regain Voter Data Parity with Democrats

The RNC's efforts to modernize its data and targeting operations comes as the party's presumptive presidential nominee has shown disdain for such efforts

ELECTION 2012
Photographer: Jin Lee/Bloomberg

One of the records inside a massive and rapidly growing Republican National Committee database contains three predictive numbers about President Barack Obama's political leanings.

There's a 95 percent likelihood Obama will vote in the 2016 general election, the database predicts, based on computer modeling. It also shows an 83 percent chance Obama will side with his party's nominee, while suggesting a 10 percent shot he'll back the Republican candidate. 

It's an extreme example—Obama, a two-term Democratic president, has repeatedly said he plans to support his party's nominee and has been highly critical of Donald Trump—but it illustrates how the RNC has attached a score to each of the 192 million registered voters in America as part of a massive push to regain parity with Democrats in using data to win elections.

Democrats have used similar scoring for several election cycles, but this will be the first in which the RNC has used such a system in a presidential election.

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The party won't share all of the ingredients it uses to cook up the scores, but they include voter registration, participation in past elections, political giving, property and neighborhood information, periodic surveys, door-to-door contacts and other field work, and data from consumer research giant Acxiom Corporation. 

By crossing the values of the three predictive scores, the party infers voting behavior and uses the information to create more customized voter contact programs that it hopes will help its candidates more efficiently utilize resources. It's the sort of sophisticated consumer and market analysis corporations have done for decades.

"We are going to let data dictate where we are going to allocates resources," said Chris Carr, the RNC's political director.

The committee's efforts to modernize its data and targeting operations comes as the party's presumptive presidential nominee has shown disdain for such efforts. Trump, who's more of a from-the-gut operator, has called the practice of using data in campaigns "overrated."

Still, he's almost certain to take advantage of the committee's work. "As far as building the infrastructure of the campaign, the RNC has been doing it for many years," Trump told reporters last week in North Dakota. "Reince has really upped it and all over the country they have very good people."

Trump was speaking of RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who has pushed the party to improve its data and digital capabilities following 2012 election losses that spotlighted shortfalls compared with the Democrats' efforts.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus
Photographer: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Even with the investment made, Democrats will still almost certainly have the advantage in November because they've continued to build on data and digital achievements made during both of Obama's White House campaigns.

"As Republicans have been doing this work at the party, hiring talent and revamping their system, the Democrats have been doing the same," said Daniel Kreiss, a professor of political communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who's writing a book on technology-intensive campaigning.

Democrats say they're confident they'll still have the upper hand this summer and fall when it comes to voter data.

“For the past three presidential elections we’ve maintained a significant edge in data and analytics, and we’re investing every single day in maintaining that advantage," said Mark Paustenbach, national press secretary for the Democratic National Committee.

"While Republicans failed to consolidate their voter file, something their own autopsy called for, Democrats have continued to expand the use and reach of our state-of-the-art national voter file, making it available to our primary candidates and candidates down ballot, so that every door that has been knocked on, every phone call made during these primaries, is informing our understanding of the electorate," he said. "Republicans don’t have that, and Donald Trump’s promise to dismiss data in favor of big rallies will further cement the Republican data inferiority."

Senate and House candidates will have access to the same data as Trump's campaign, although some are also likely to purchase voter information from RNC competitors.

Democrats have benefited from a more cohesive ecosystem that's kept all the players on one main data platform, Kreiss said; Republicans have taken a more fragmented approach with multiple data players and access tools.

"That means less integration and utility," he said. "It makes the world a lot easier if everyone in every state has bought into the same core database."

The RNC warehouses its own data but exchanges information with an entity called Data Trust. Other voter data companies that work with Republicans include market research firm TargetPoint Consulting, data mining and analysis specialists Cambridge Analytica, and i360, which has ties to conservative donors Charles and David Koch.

The data efforts are designed to help campaigns figure out which voters to contact and what best to say to them, as well as help candidates more efficiently buy television and other advertising. The work is often also used in the design of e-mails and internet pages to recruit volunteers and donors.

The data can also be used to try to predict turnout and the outcome of an election, potentially more accurately than QuickTake telephone or online polling.

This so-called "micro-targeting" has been used at the national level ever since George W. Bush's strategist Karl Rove effectively harnessed it for that president's 2004 re-election bid.

After having the early edge on the technology front, Republicans ceded ground to Democrats in 2008 as the Obama campaign's knack for technology development and massive resources advanced the state of the art.

Kreiss said Trump's campaign—which so far has been based more on media coverage and social media activity than voter contact and detailed field organizing—could slow Republican efforts to gain ground against the Democrats.

That's because presidential campaigns have the resources and ability to do things no other campaign can do, such as generate millions of contacts nationwide to enhance voter files and inspire new expertise to gather and analyze data.

"Presidential campaigns are massive mobilizing events," he said. "That's what makes them so consequential."

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