The Data Wars: Republicans Fight to Stay Ahead on Microtargeting

GOP Doubles Down in Voter Data Wars


Once a key advantage to Republican campaign strategy, the GOP has doubled down on analyzing voter data in 2012 after Democrats have spend years beating them at their own game.

The Republican National Committee signed an agreement with Data Trust, a firm that maintains voter files and matches them with relevant commercial data.

Data Trust has spent months working out agreements with conservative groups who will work with the company to use and update the voter files.

The move signals the GOP's renewed commitment to "microtargeting," a technique that uses granular information on voters to reach out and build relationships with specific demographics.

Microtargeting is a technique long used by businesses to target customers on an acute level. The GOP famously adopted the technique in 2000 when Alexander Gage, a founder of Target Point, a GOP strategy firm, compelled Karl Rove, George W. Bush's senior advisor, to use it as a way to connect with individual voters. [See pictures of Mitt Romney on the campaign trail.]

Unlike television ads, microtargeting allows campaigns to direct specific messages to individual voters based on their political leanings and interests, and in the process, gain an understanding of who they have the best chances of connecting with.

The data can be so accurate that digital campaign strategists say whoever can do it better in 2012 secures a major advantage in winning the White House.

"If you are not using these techniques you are at a major disadvantage," says Joel Rivlin, the Senior Vice President of the Pivot Group, an agency that specializes in microtargeting. "At the end of the day, it's the communication with voters that has the ability to change minds and behavior, and this is the best tool to find the right people to have that communication with. It would be wasting resources without it."

One of the first compilation of voter files, Voter Vault, was born out of the success of the GOP's first microtargeting effort, but the Republicans have since struggled to keep their edge.

In 2006, former Clinton staffers Harold Ickes and Laura Quinn developed Catalist, a data company created to benefit progressive causes. Catalist was able to build an extensive voter file, which now houses information on 180 million registered voters. [Debate Club: Are Super PACs Harming U.S. Politics?]

Catalist helped Democratic groups including the Obama campaign surge ahead in microtargeting. An after-action report acquired by the Atlantic in 2009 revealed the group's efforts may have helped catapult the president to victory. The report showed of the 49 million adults who were contacted by Catalist, roughly 50 percent of them showed up to the polls, a number that accounts for 1-in-5 ballots cast in 2008.

Quinn,the CEO of Catalist, says that the race for the best data on voters is one that is likely to be competitive for years to come.

"Both sides seesaw back and forth about who has the best command of the tools, but progressives have had a consistent advantage when communication gets personal," she says. "The jury is still out. It is a lot like when people were trying to figure out how to use television. I am sure people will look back and say 'Wow, they had barely started to figure this out.'"

The new agreement the RNC has entered into allows many conservative groups to use the RNC's voter files on the condition that they update the data they use. Since voter files aren't static, groups must continue to add to the databases for years in order to gain greater understanding of voters and extrapolate trends over time.

Without the Data Trust agreement, RNC Executive Member Jim Bopp says the costs of keeping the voter files updated would be too much for the RNC. [See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican party.]

"We would have two choices," Bopp says. "We could pay to update the list itself, which we could not afford to do. Or, we could have a list without any value. Instead, we did this list exchange. It keeps the list updated."

Maintaining these data files and developing strategies for using the information in the best way possible is expensive, but experts say the return on investment is greater than the television ads that have dominated American campaigns for nearly sixty years.