Maryland Gov. Hogan, possible Democratic rivals expand voter outreach with technology

To get out the vote, Gov. Larry Hogan is getting into voters’ devices.

The Republican governor — who effectively used Facebook to help him win the 2014 election — is now gaining traction with digital-savvy supporters through a new venue: a mobile app that rewards them for their mobilizing efforts.

And two Democratic gubernatorial candidates hoping to challenge Hogan in November have been using some of the latest technology to help them expand their reach beyond physical glad-handing, phone-banking and median-waving.

While digital organizing made significant advances during the 2016 national election, Maryland voters haven’t been exposed to such electoral leaps for four years — practically a lifetime in technological innovation.

“The technology is evolving quickly,” said Adam Sheingate, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor.

Candidates and their political consultants will brag about the effectiveness of their cutting-edge technology to connect and rally supporters, but gauging real impact is not so easy, said Sheingate, who has studied how U.S. campaigns have used technology back to the advent of radio.

“There is a cycle of experimentation and failure until people figure out how best to use technology,” said Sheingate, whose book, “Building A Business of Politics,” examines the rise of political consultants. “There’s a tendency to oversell and exaggerate the effects of technology before we know its usefulness.”

Even studies of TV, radio and email campaigns over several decades have struggled to pinpoint precise formulas for what works and what does not, he added. The same will be true for apps and new advances in using email.

“It’s going to be some time before we know how effective they are,” Sheingate said.

Hogan’s campaign, however, is sold on its app.

“It’s no secret that people are living on their phones,” said Doug Mayer, a spokesman for Hogan’s campaign. “We want our supporters to do everything they would normally do in grassroots field campaigning. We want them to take that field experience and translate it into their mobile device.”

Voters who back the Republican can download an app and earn points for inviting friends to download it, posting positive messages on social media or voting early.

Through the Hogan app, users earn “action points” and unlock badges ranging from “intern” up to “campaign manager.” Points are earned for using the app to post on Twitter or Facebook, watch TV ads, make a donation or connect with other supporters. Supporters can also learn about campaign events in their area.

Within the first two weeks of launching the app on May 31, 500 people downloaded the app, Mayer said.

The app’s privacy policy notes that it may collect data from the user’s mobile address book and from the user’s social media accounts when they are linked to the app — a potential point of concern for users.

Mayer said the campaign won’t share that data with other groups or businesses.

“Everything is opt-in,” Mayer said. “Any information our campaign collects, whether it’s through person-to-person contact, whether it’s through contributions or this app, is secured through the highest industry standards, including encryption technology.”

Mayer said the campaign’s contract with app developer uCampaign — which also built apps for President Donald J. Trump’s campaign and for the National Rifle Association — prohibits third-party sharing.

But Mayer wouldn’t say exactly how the campaign would use the data collected about users and their contacts.

“How the campaign utilizes the information we gather through any method is something that we decide based on what’s best for the campaign,” he said.

Thomas Peters, founder of uCampaign, said the company’s apps aim to help candidates “break through the noise and try to get their supporters engaged.”

App users who participate in the email feature can easily delete their contacts, Peters said.

“We take privacy very, very seriously,” he said. “The user always has a right to be forgotten.”

The company also has a program called RumbleUp that enables supporters to send text messages to their contacts.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, said campaigns need to be clear about how their apps and programs work. The information shouldn’t be mentioned only in privacy policies, which he said aren’t usually helpful.

And supporters should think carefully before signing up, Rotenberg said.

“Campaigns should be transparent and fair in the collection and use of personal data,” he said. “Voters should know how information about them is being collected and be able to delete the data.”

Two of the Democratic candidates seeking to win the June 26 primary election for governor — Alec Ross and state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr. — have been encouraging their supporters to use a tool called VoterCircle that scans their email address books to help them send out email blasts to their contacts.

Supporters can upload their contacts from sources including Facebook, LinkedIn and their email address books. VoterCircle then matches the contacts to databases of registered voters and helps the user craft an email pitch that would only go to their contacts who are registered Democratic voters in Maryland.

Shaun Daniels, Ross’ campaign manager, said neither the campaign nor VoterCircle retains the record of a user’s contacts and all users are given information about privacy.

“We make it clear that we do not acquire any of that information, and neither does the company,” Daniels said.

Daniels said the campaign was aware that supporters might be wary about sharing email addresses — especially since it was revealed that the British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica collected private data from millions of Facebook users without their knowledge.

“We all work in politics, we all saw Cambridge Analytica and all that,” Daniels said. “In order for us to use it, we had to be satisfied.”

So far, Ross’ supporters have used VoterCircle to email “tens of thousands” of their contacts, Daniels said. Some supporters have emailed as few as four people, while others have sent out blasts to 3,000 contacts.

Digital organizing can supplement traditional field activities such as phone calling and door knocking, he said. The advantage is that the digital tool uses a trusted friend or colleague to break the ice with a potential supporter, and it also can be done much more efficiently.

“To run a true, statewide campaign of this size, you need 15 field offices, 30 to 40 field organizers,” Daniels said. “No one has that kind of money.”

Ross’ campaign paid Voter Circle $8,000 between January and May, according to campaign finance reports.

Madaleno’s campaign started promoting VoterCircle last week, telling supporters in an email that “with just a few clicks, you can make a huge difference for the campaign.”

Sangeeth Peruri, a former hedge fund manager, founded VoterCircle after winning a school school board race in California in 2014. He said he used a friend-to-friend strategy to combat negative campaigning against him, and realized his idea could have promise.

“If you think about campaign outreach in general, how we’ve always done things is cold outreach,” Peruri siad. “You get direct mail or you see an ad or someone knocks on your door you’ve never met. It’s all stranger-to-stranger communication.”

The company’s tools, he added, enable campaigns to send more personalized messages to voters.

“If you get that message from someone you know, that is going to heavily persuade you,” he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

pwood@baltsun.com

twitter.com/pwoodreporter

Copyright © 2018, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
73°