Analysis

CA120: Politics, data and Cambridge Analytica — a followup

An image of voters on a digital information background. (Illustration: Maksim Kabakou, via Shutterstock)

With all the headlines about Cambridge Analytica and the potential that millions of Facebook users had their data leaked to third parties, there is one obvious question on the minds of candidates and consultants: What will this mean for continued use of digital ads in my campaign?

The answer: Probably nothing.

As I reported in a recent CA120 article, the Cambridge Analytica scandal was all about a limited, pre-2014 practice that allowed application creators to pull down user information and match it to the voter file.

The digital targeting, including Facebook, begins with the voter file, just like traditional mail and field programs.

Cambridge Analytica concocted a potent mix of fraudulent practices and snake-oil sales pitches, but it is not representative of how legitimate political firms use data in a modern campaign.

The scandal focused on users’ personal data being sucked out of Facebook, but the path in today’s campaigns is most often a one-way street in the opposite direction.

So I here are some thoughts on the use of data in modern political campaigns.

Campaigns build universes of voters and push ads to them via traditional mail, phone calls, text messages and digital advertising.

The digital targeting, including Facebook, begins with the voter file, just like traditional mail and field programs.

But in this case, the campaigns are uploading their lists to be anonymously matched to the digital targets through social media platforms (Facebook and others), via cookies and via ISP-authenticated IP targeting. This targeting is crucial.

Campaigns will upload their list of, say, 10,000 voters and by the next day they will have built a universe of voters to contact with ads. That list might shrink to perhaps 6,500 voters or so — those that were found to be matches to the targeted list.

They can get high-value reports back as to how many people on their list saw or clicked on an ad – a lot more feedback than you get from a mail campaign or TV buy.

This match rate can vary widely, based on the target universe and quality of the data.

The data, in the jargon of the experts, is now “anonymized.” That means the campaign doesn’t have the actual cookies of any voter, it doesn’t know their Facebook accounts and they can’t get reports back that Sally and Tim saw their ad or watched their video on YouTube. That’s a privacy no-no.

They can, however, get high-value reports back as to how many people on their list saw or clicked on an ad – a lot more feedback than you get from a mail campaign or TV buy.

This has matured in the past several years, with campaigns better integrating digital with the rest of their operations. As we begin to see campaigns run their digital campaigns in 2018, we are seeing a growing set of best-practices:

Targeted Digital
The big change to digital is its transformation from a broadcast media – banner ads on websites that hit everyone, voters and non-voters alike — to targeted video and interactive display communication that drives right at the campaign’s targeted voters.

And this targeting is getting increasingly narrowed.

A quick ad with the same message as the mailer can be pushed to digital targets for a few days before and after that actual mailer shows up at the house.

With current targeting, campaigns are not just loading up all their voters, they are loading up tiny segments – a special ad to Armenian voters, an uploaded list to voters invited to a neighborhood coffee, a special push to volunteers thanking them for helping the campaign and asking them to come in again before Election Day.

Buffering Voter Contact
The campaign knows what precincts are being targeted each weekend, and instead of showing up cold, they push Facebook and other digital ads to those voters for the week before the precinct walk and the week after. A little “Meet Candidate Smith” ad can seed the conversation with some voters who will have seen the ad – making that voter contact more valuable.

The same can be done with mail. Campaigns take great strides to pace out their mail programs, hit themes, push absentee voters earlier and precinct voters later, and all this can be supplemented with digital.  A quick ad with the same message as the mailer can be pushed to digital targets for a few days before and after that actual mailer shows up at the house, amplifying the expensive mail program with relatively low-cost digital.

Digital Reach, not just impressions or clicks
Programmatic digital ads are bought in a real-time auction. In the milliseconds it takes your computer to load a website or Facebook page, a server somewhere is sending out an auction for your specific profile. The notice that “there is an ad available to place!” prompts buyers to line up to bid on that little bit of real-estate on your computer, phone or other device. The winning bid gets your attention, the rest have to wait until next time.

Treat digital as something that works, not just something that is cheap, and you will find the proper balance.

If you are a campaign bidding to get the eyeballs of a likely voter who has also been shopping for a car, forget about it. Your digital campaign might not be bidding high enough to get in front of that voter, particularly if the campaign’s bids are capped at a really low price.

To break through this wall, think of your campaign as trying to reach your voters, not just get the highest number of impressions or clicks.

This means, for more expensive audiences (which are often people like high-income likely voters), campaigns are having to up their bids and spend a little more on that voter contact. It will never reach the cost of mail, but a little push to a harder to reach digital audience should be in the toolkit of a modern campaign.

Treat digital as something that works, not just something that is cheap, and you will find the proper balance.

Target hard to reach voters
Digital can’t reach everyone, particularly those on the other side of the digital divide. There are also a lot of voters who don’t get campaign emails and can’t be hit with phone banks because they don’t have a phone on the voter file.

Campaigns should identify these voters and increase the mail and door-knocking to make sure their messages are getting through.

The digital targeting story for 2018 doesn’t have to be just about what is being done on digital platforms, but can also include how campaigns are ramping up traditional voter contact methods for voters who can’t be reached by digital.

But there are also ways to try and connect to these voters.

In one example, Comcast’s digital targeting program includes a specific universe of voters who have neither a phone number or email address. These can be targeted for digital ads to their household because Comcast is matching internally to their subscriber base, despite having a lower match rate to third party cookies and Facebook.

Constant refreshing of the data.
Grabbing an old set of data and using that to push digital ads isn’t going to cut it.

In 2016 we saw 40% of voter households include at least one newly registered voter.  This means new IP addresses, cable subscriptions, cookies, Facebook and twitter users, etc…

We have already seen a historically fast rate of registrations in California, with more than 2 million newly registered voters since the 2016 General Election. And that is before the start of the new DMV “automatic” voter registration.

If your targeting lists haven’t been refreshed lately, now is the time to update that data!

Removing “Already Voted”
This is the common practice in every part of campaigning in California, from mailers to walk programs, phones and texting, but many digital programs fail to take rather easy steps to remove voters who have already cast ballots.

This could be even more important in the 2018 Primary election with five counties going entirely to by-mail voting and some projections of 65% or more voters casting their ballots before Election Day.

There are two ways to deal with voters who have already cast ballots – either a campaign can upload a new list, removing these voters, or they can create a list of just the voters who have cast ballots, and use them as a suppression universe against all of their ad campaigns. This is something more digital vendors are facilitating in 2018.

Despite all the bad press, there are still some companies that talk about using social media data as a portion of their voter targeting and models – even selling the idea that they can use the social media profiles of voters to build better models around a voter’s “psychographic” details.

These procedures would require drawing down social media data in a manner that might be too similar to what Cambridge Analytica has done, so campaigns should be skeptical.

The last thing a campaign needs to deal with is the claim that they are pulling down data in a manner that is literally and figuratively on trial in our current national conversation about online data privacy.

However, targeting via ads pushed to voters through targeted voter files can provide a significant benefit, especially in a gubernatorial election which should be lower turnout.

And these methods are not under fire – they are growing and becoming the accepted norm in 2018 with dramatic expansion of use by both the big statewide campaigns and smaller local races.

Ed’s Note: Paul Mitchell, a regular contributor to Capitol Weekly, is the creator of the CA120 column, vice president of Political Data and owner of Redistricting Partners, a political strategy firm. 

 


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