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Candidates' Campaigns Eye Online History to Coax Voters to Polls

Voter information accessed on computers, smartphones and tablets is the backbone of modern candidate outreach and has potential to revolutionize, experts say.

The candidate and the campaign manager headed up 17th Street, passing one, two, three row homes before reaching their destination. One, two, three knocks, and Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Mt. Washington, waited for the likely Democratic primary voter of residence to answer the door.

No one did. Jacob Redfern, her campaign manager, swiped his thumb across an iPad and scanned the list of addresses in the precinct where they might find the person for whom they were looking: Someone they can count on or persuade to vote for Molchany on May 20.

“That's where the secret sauce comes in,” Redfern said. He's using an app called TrailBlazer, one of the many tools of the modern campaign.

Voter information, stored and sifted through databases and accessed on computers, smartphones and tablets, is the backbone of modern candidate outreach, experts say. Each technology has potential to revolutionize. Yet the goals are the same: Reach voters, get them to polls and win the seat.

Robert Witmer of Seven Points Consulting in Allentown runs the campaign for Rep. Harry Readshaw, D-Carrick, who is in a primary race with Molchany for his long-held 36th District seat as a result of legislative redistricting. Witmer said the team dispatches canvassers with voter logs built from their database — and in many cases, an iPad replaces a clipboard.

“We can get into the field and track responses in real time, rather than having to go back a day later and track who is going to vote for you,” he said. “The iPad itself is revolutionary.”

Gathering specifics

For years, campaigns have had access to basic registration information from the state, such as names, addresses, party affiliations and voting history. That gets combined with their research — such as email addresses, phone numbers and a person's level of education — to build the voter profile.

Increasingly, details from commercially purchased data color those files.

Magazine subscriptions can be used to model issues or interest preferences. Public licensing applications can indicate workplace or industry. Forms filled out by customers for bonus cards and email lists are used, too.

From there, broad strokes are drawn to target advertisements: A Chevy pickup owner is more likely to be conservative. Liberals tend to watch cooking shows.

Matt Merriman-Preston of Ampersand Consulting, who operates Molchany's campaign, dived deep into voter analytics last year while running Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto's primary and general election bids. When canvassers dialed phones and knocked on doors, they knew how likely the resident was to vote for Peduto, if at all.

“Somebody who is 90 percent likely to vote, you want to contact them with persuasion for your candidate because you know they're going to turn out,” Merriman-Preston said. “But if you know that they're with you, you may need to do less contact, because more contact is not going to increase the likelihood they turn out very much.”

Effective targeting

The Ampersand Consulting team analyzed past elections to model likely turnout, and assigned a number to each voter on the likelihood that he or she would vote.

Before the primary, the Peduto campaign focused efforts in the city's 7th and 14th wards in Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, where then-Councilman Peduto of Point Breeze had a strong base. They knew those who showed up to polls would likely cast a ballot for Peduto, so they focused efforts on those who were 35 to 40 percent likely to turn out.

“We were able to push that number out, so we got a relatively higher turnout out of that council district than in the rest of the city,” Merriman-Preston said.

His firm won a first-place award for “Get-Out-the-Vote” efforts from the American Association of Political Consultants for its work in 2013 campaigns.

Mike Moschella, a vice president at digital organizing platform NationBuilder, said applying voter information data is increasingly essential to winning races. In Pennsylvania, a state with about 8 million registered voters, a statewide candidate can tailor a message.

“You can't actually have a conversation with all of them,” he said. “But if you target very effectively, you can have a very effective conversation with certain groups.”

NationBuilder tools include voter information tracking, donation pages, petition platforms, volunteer recruitment and social media outreach. About 4,000 campaigns nationwide are customers, including Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's campaign, Moschella said.

Getting on board

Although field operations shifted with technological trends, the change isn't fully implemented.

A Gallup poll from the end of April found that although seven in 10 Americans have smartphones or tablets, about 23 percent received electronic communications from political interest groups. Just 4 percent reported donating to candidates or political causes with mobile technology.

Michael Bronstein, co-founder of Delaware County-based Democratic consulting firm Bronstein & Weaver Inc., said microtargeting is “disruptive innovation,” much in the way radio or television have been in past years. Much of the change occurred with President Obama's campaigns, through custom-built databases and Facebook targeting to connect voter profiles with social media.

“There is something different going on in campaigns now, and it's moving at a much quicker pace,” Bronstein said. “Those who don't adapt to the current landscape, they'll find themselves behind very soon.”

©2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.)