With Midterm Elections In Mind, Democrats Micro-Target Voters

During the 2012 presidential race, Democrats used big data to much success. The big data approach to micro-targeting voters is getting increasingly powerful, and is being used for midterm campaigns.

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And let's take a look now at a campaign tool that Democrats used to great effect in the 2012 presidential race: Big Data. The Obama campaign stunned the opposition with its hi-tech ability to reach and mobilize voters. Now, liberal superPACs and independent groups are applying that technology to the midterm elections, with help from wealthy progressive donors.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: If there was a central planning for progressive political donors, it might be the Democracy Alliance, a loose but powerful collection of top-tier givers who try to set common goals.

GARA LAMARCHE: We set our strategies every three years, and then we kind of sunset them and take a look at what needs to happen in the future. So we're in the middle of that.

OVERBY: This is Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance. He says one top priority is building a ground operation for the long run. Take advantage of America's changing demographics and generate more votes from women, African-Americans and Hispanics in elections running thru the next redistricting.

Demographics are not complete destiny, and they take investment, and they take delivery to the communities involved. I think everybody understands that victory is there to be won, but only with sufficient investment, and I think people are willing to step up and do that.

What's new is that the investment won't just buy more TV ads. Regular TV continues to lose its punch as voters get political messages through websites and social media. The big-data approach to micro-targeting voters is getting increasingly powerful.

CHRIS LEHANE: You know, as we're speaking, the technology is getting better and better and better in terms of precision targeting.

OVERBY: Chris Lehane is political adviser to one prominent member of the Democracy Alliance, California investor Tom Steyer. Lehane says donors used to shun ground operations. Based on door-knocking and lawn signs, their impact couldn't be measured. So where would contributors direct their dollars?

LEHANE: To the paid media side...

(LAUGHTER)

LEHANE: ...if for no other reason than you could actually see a TV spot and know it was playing.

OVERBY: Last year, Steyer, Lehane's boss, spent $8 million using TV ads integrated with a sophisticated field operation to help elect Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe in Virginia.

For the midterms, Steyer is committing $50 million to help pro-environment candidates and another three million for union-backed efforts in state races. Labor is targeting states, where Republicans took control four years ago and where unions hope to build a long-term infrastructure.

MICHAEL PODHORZER: After each election, we're thinking about what life is gonna look like in two years.

OVERBY: Michael Podhorzer is political director of the AFL-CIO. He says that changes in the lives of voters will mean changes in labor's strategy and technology, although the core remains the same.

PODHORZER: For the labor movement, this is not something new. I mean, we're in a sense the original social network.

OVERBY: And as Democracy Alliance donors spread their wealth to other progressive stalwarts, women's groups, environmentalists and others Podhorzer says they all benefit.

PODHORZER: In the last several cycles, progressive donors have seen greater and greater value coming out of progressive ground operations, and have invested in it.

OVERBY: Another donor in the Democracy Alliance, financier George Sorosv, has given more than $2 million to a firm called Catalist, and he sends a million dollars a year to the nonprofit America Votes. That's according to a Soros adviser. Both entities supply data and analytics to liberal groups.

Meanwhile, conservatives are striving to catch up. GOP strategist Karl Rove has pushed one plan, while the Koch Brothers network developed another and the Republican National Committee has acquired a third.

Again, liberal strategist Chris Lehane.

LEHANE: I do think that this is, you know, arguably the biggest disruption in how political campaigns have been run, at the nuts and bolts level, since the advent of television.

OVERBY: This is not to say that attack ads will go away. Instead, those messages will be more targeted and coming at you on multiple platforms.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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