Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign team reinvented the art of modern campaigning by using data to transform almost every aspect of running for office. It succeeded wildly in turning out infrequent and new voters, and since then its innovations—which included mining individual TV-viewing habits to get more out of advertising dollars—have been hard-wired into both parties’ presidential campaigns. That’s led to the birth of dozens of consulting firms making grandiose promises to disrupt politics with analytics.
With more money flowing into local races in 2016 than ever, those consultants are marketing the data revolution not just to would-be presidents but to dogcatchers, too. In Ohio, the Republican Senate Campaign Committee’s four-person staff contracts with a Washington-based consulting firm, Optimus, to acquire data, develop statistical models, and make targeting decisions for candidates running for seats in the state legislature—the same suite of services Optimus is providing to Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign. “If you’re Joe Legislative Candidate out on your own, that’s a hard thing to do,” says John McClelland, executive director of the Ohio committee.
In 2014 the committee spent $8 million to win three seats. About $700,000 of it went to Optimus. The firm’s analysis led the committee to seek out bargains when placing ads—such as skipping Sunday Night Football and buying airtime during Law & Order reruns, which cost a quarter as much but still delivered large numbers of likely voters. “We could have easily spent half our budget doing TV in those three races,” McClelland says. Buying television ad time without looking at data analytics, he says, means “you’re wasting a lot of dollars, because you’re talking to a lot of people who don’t need to hear your message.”
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, a national group that spent more than $15 million on state-level races in 2014, bought the party’s statehouse candidates nationwide access to statistical models developed by Clarity Campaign Labs, in Washington, which specializes in predicting voter attitudes and behaviors. This year, Clarity has put its services in the hands of candidates even farther down the ballot. It’s created a statistical model to identify voters likely to show up for low-turnout municipal races.
For Elizabeth Brown, a city council candidate in Columbus, Ohio, Clarity went further and developed a proprietary model unique to her race, which typically costs around $30,000 but can be done for less when combined with research for other candidates. (Brown is not quite Joe Legislative Candidate: She’s the former deputy director of the state’s Democratic Party and daughter of U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown.) “Candidates hear ‘Obama did something,’ ” says Clarity partner John Hagner. Their response? “ ‘We have to do something.’ ”