Using technology to target voters

From left, Brady Widener, Tyler Beckey, and Patrick Battista, volunteers for the gubernatorial campaign of Doug Gansler check their information before they break out to canvass the area in a late push for the Democratic candidate. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / May 30, 2014)

When Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown's gubernatorial campaign wanted to make sure that likely primary voters saw a video ad, his staff didn't rely solely on television stations to deliver the message.

They also arranged for it to run on the computer screens of individuals the campaign believes are all but certain to turn out at the polls.

And when volunteers for Attorney General Douglas Gansler's campaign walk through a neighborhood to meet with voters, they visit homes identified by computer modeling that predicts — before the doorbell is rung — how strong a supporter the person on the other side of the threshold might be.

The Democrats and Republicans running in Maryland's June 24 gubernatorial primary are embracing increasingly sophisticated digital targeting techniques that allow candidates to single out voters and aim specialized ads — as well as personal contacts — directly at them.

The practice, used extensively by the Obama and Romney campaigns in the 2012 presidential election, is a boon for candidates who want to connect with voters they might otherwise overlook.

But it has raised concerns among some privacy advocates, who point out that the practice sometimes relies on personal data — from magazine subscriptions to Internet browsing histories — that are collected with little, if any, oversight.

"Campaigns now know a lot about people just like marketing firms know a lot about people," said Eitan D. Hersh, a Yale University political scientist who has studied the method. "They want to be able to target you in every medium they're using."

The three candidates vying for the Democratic nomination — Brown, Gansler and Del. Heather Mizeur — all are using digital targeting, though not at the level practiced by the Obama campaign in 2012 or by statewide candidates in more competitive races elsewhere, such as last year's Virginia gubernatorial election.

Republican candidates, including Harford County Executive David R. Craig and Del. Ron George of Anne Arundel County, say they're also developing more sophisticated voter models and using them to place targeted ads on social media sites like Facebook, though the campaigns were more circumspect in detailing their efforts.

While campaigns have traditionally fashioned messages to appeal to broad geographic areas or demographic groups, so-called micro-targeting allows them to identify and make contact with smaller, more specific groups. Sifting through reams of data, a campaign predicts which voters are most likely to turn out to the polls — and which of those are most likely to support their candidate — and then find ways to connect with those specific people.

The method first gained prominence during President George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004, but advanced technology and the proliferation of data are making it easier for state and local campaigns to try.

"The art is figuring out what people's predispositions are and their likelihood of turning out," said Ken Goldstein, a political science professor at the University of San Francisco. "If you can be the micro-targeting wizard who figures out this group of people may vote — and you hit those people — you get an advantage."

The effort begins with voter registration data, which for Democrats is often delivered through a digital firm called NGP VAN. In addition to voter roll data, the product relies on other publicly available information, such as whether the voter owns his or her home or has a hunting license, to provide analysis.

Campaign consultants then add their own information such as polling data or details about consumer habits to paint a more complete picture of a voter.

When the Brown campaign unveiled its first video ad earlier this year, it used computer modeling to identify those voters who have a high probability of casting a ballot on Election Day. It then handed that list over to YouTube, which matched the names to the IP addresses that allowed for the targeting of individual computers.

So when voters identified by the campaign clicked on a clip from a late-night comedy show or a music video, they were first presented with a "pre-roll" ad from the Brown campaign.

"Micro-targeting has been around for years," said Brown campaign manager Justin Schall. "It's just that it gets better every year."

More advanced micro-targeting allows campaigns to cater the advertising itself to specific groups. A campaign, for instance, might craft an ad about gun control legislation to parents of school-age children, even if those voters aren't hard-core party members.

"You can define these parents who would likely be interested in gun safety legislation because they have school-age children and they live in the suburbs," said Martha McKenna, a Democratic political operative who works with statewide and local campaigns across the country.

"It's a more sophisticated way to figure out your voter groups when traditional methods only get you so far," she said.

The practice has influenced canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts for years. And it explains why campaign volunteers from both parties might knock on one door but skip the next three. If die-hard opponents live in those next three homes, it is more efficient for the volunteers to move on.

"Knocking on every door is old school," said Stuart Trevelyan, the head of Washington-based NGP VAN.

Gansler's modeling helped the campaign recognize that support was strong enough in portions of Southern Maryland that it could shift volunteers to other areas of the state, spokeswoman Katie Hill said. The campaign still connects with voters in Southern Maryland, but the effort is more likely to be by phone instead of in person.

Democratic candidates in Maryland have hired several digital firms that worked for Obama's campaign. Gansler, who supported Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary and went on to co-chair his campaign in the state, is relying on Clarity Campaign Labs to build its modeling, and is paying Blue State Digital for consulting, according to campaign finance reports.

Both firms worked with the Obama campaign, and the CEO of Blue State served as Obama's top digital strategist.

Blue State, with offices in Washington, New York and elsewhere, would not discuss what work it is performing for Gansler. Political director Matthew McGregor said statewide campaigns are far more equipped to target voters online and on the ground than they were four years ago.

The Baltimore-based Yuhas Group also worked on Gansler's model, the campaign said.

Mizeur hired Washington-based New Blue Interactive to run her campaign's digital strategy. Taryn Rosenkranz, the company's CEO, said it has also relied on modeling to place micro-targeted ads on Facebook and other social media sites.

Campaign finance records show that Craig has relied on a Washington-based firm, Aristotle, which can provide up to 500 consumer data fields that include information such as whether a voter scuba dives or gardens, and whether he or she is divorced.

The company would not say what work it is performing for Craig. Its chief marketing officer, Brandi Travis, said cost prevents most state campaigns from buying as much data for micro-targeting as presidential campaigns.

Among the Republicans, Hogan appears to be the biggest spender on digital campaigns, according to expenditure reports. In 2014, he has paid more than $16,000 to Facebook, for example. A spokesman for his campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Overall, Republican candidates have raised less money and appear to be spending less on digital than the Democrats.

"We're in a competitive race, so we're making use of everything," George said, adding that his campaign will soon begin targeting online ads to certain types of users.

But no matter how valuable the techniques are for political campaigns, civil libertarians are concerned about the types of data being collected and what oversight is in place to protect privacy.

Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for privacy issues with the American Civil Liberties Union, said there is virtually no government regulation to guide the practice. The Federal Trade Commission noted similar concerns in a report last week focused on data brokers that sell personal information to private companies and campaigns.

"I think it does create some unintended problems for campaigns," Calabrese said. "It's feeding into this system of the profiling of each of us."

The extent to which consumer data is used by campaigns in Maryland is unclear. All three Democratic campaigns said they did not rely on consumer data beyond the public information that is already mixed into the analyses available from NGP VAN.

Paul Ellington, campaign manager for Craig, said he uses consumer data. But he declined to detail what datasets are being mined.

Campaigns answer privacy concerns in part by saying they aren't all that interested in whether a voter subscribes to Field & Stream, drives a Volvo or listens to U2 on a music streaming site. They don't even see that information. Instead, consultants plug dozens or hundreds of such factors into algorithms that build a composite picture of a voter.

Based on that, campaigns receive a score that predicts how likely a voter is to respond to a certain message or support a specific candidate.

Goldstein and others say that while the use of consumer information by political campaigns received significant attention in the 2012 election, the public voter registration data, polling and the one-on-one contact with volunteers remain the bread and butter of most micro-targeting efforts.

Alex Kellner, who served as digital director for Terry McAuliffe's successful gubernatorial campaign last year in Virginia, used an aggressive online targeting campaign to place ads on Facebook, Pandora and other popular sites to get voters to the polls.

One ad targeted young Democrats. Some ads featured former President Bill Clinton. He said the effort led 90,000 people to click on the ad in the final days of the campaign to look up their polling place.

McAuliffe won the election by less than 60,000 votes.

"Am I saying that, alone, we won the race? No," Kellner said. "But we had impact."

Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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Targeting online ads

Political campaigns in Maryland are relying on an increasingly sophisticated online targeting techniques to connect with voters. Here's one example of how that effort might work:

A campaign uses voter registration data to identify Hispanic voters in a given county who are highly likely to turn out in an election.

The campaign turns the list of voters over to a site such as YouTube or Google, which matches as many names as it can on the list to individual IP addresses.

The campaign then buys advertisements that appear on individual computers before a YouTube video is shown or when a voter searches the Internet.