Candidates Use Predictive Analytics to Seek Votes

By Renee Boucher Ferguson  |  Posted 2008-03-10

Candidates Use Predictive Analytics to Seek Votes

A company called VisualCalc provides a free Web site that helps citizens analyze the presidential race through a series of dashboards that chart the status and trends of the primary election.

On the flip side, candidates in this year's historical race for the White House-for the first time a woman and a black man are vying for the Democratic Party nomination alongside a single presumptive Republican nominee-have similar tools to provide information that may help them attract those key undecided voters.

It's called microtargeting, and it's helping candidates like Sen. Barack Obama determine a number of basic but essential variables as his campaign moves from state to state and primary to primary, in a tooth-and-nail battle with Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

The Obama campaign is working with Washington-based data analytics firm Strategic Telemetry-a company that cut its teeth building voter data models for Sen. John Kerry during the hard-fought 2004 presidential elections-to help determine voter trends. It's a technological edge that could mean the difference between winning and losing in a close election.

"It was an interesting buzzword in 2004. Now most people in politics have heard of microtargeting and most people think it is something they have to have in a campaign," said Ken Strasma, president and founder of Strategic Telemetry. "In a close race it can definitely make the difference of a couple percentage points."

While Strasma can't comment on the specifics of the Obama race-"It's not a secret weapon if we talk about it," he said-there are a number of basic questions predictive analytics tries to answer for any campaign. These include how likely it is that a voter is undecided, what issues undecided voters care about, how likely it is that a voter supports a certain candidate and how likely it is that an individual will contribute if asked.

"In increasingly polarized elections it becomes harder and harder to find undecided voters and to find issues voters are interested in," Strasma said.

"We were founded in 2003 to provide individual-level microtargeting for Democratic campaigns and progressive and labor organizations. Our goal is to bring the same type of technology used in the commercial world to the world of politics, where efficiencies are really important."

The bottom line in political campaigns is that there's only so much money to go around. Predictive analytics, its proponents say, is a way to help campaigns target their funds toward the right voters-those who haven't decided to vote for another candidate.

How microtargeting works


Customer segmentation is, in a general, a way to group people or organizations with similar demographic profiles, attitudes, purchasing patterns, buying behaviors or other attributes to help organizations understand customers more thoroughly and ultimately market to them better. Companies like Strategic Telemetry and SPIN (Southern Political Information Network), a Southern states political consultancy, use the same concepts in the political arena.

Microtargeting uses data from a number of sources-individual states' voter files and census data-and combines it with available marketing data from companies like InfoUSA and Experian to get a basic voter picture of a given geographic area. Strategic Telemetry uses SPSS' Clementine data mining and predictive analytics workbench, combined with its own proprietary algorithms, to search for the best ways to reach the most likely undecided voters.

Based on an individual's ZIP code or background information, campaigns can get a better sense of who the voters are in a given area, and what the right messages would be on key issues such as education, health care, immigration and the economy.

Last week's primary election in Ohio is a good example. Both the Obama and Clinton campaigns went in emphasizing messages about the economy, as a large number of Ohioans have lost their jobs in recent years.

"We geocode the files and apply census block data," Strasma said. "That gives us thousands and thousands of data points-income, age, industry that people work in-and from that we can determine how many blue collar versus white collar employees, how long commute times are, what percentage are agricultural versus suburban, and their country of origin. It isn't about an individual-you don't look up if Joe Smith has a particular income-you find out a particular [census] block income level."

Once data input is determined, companies like Strategic Telemetry utilize algorithms to model various scenarios. Strasma said while the models can vary, the three most common search targets are: undecided voters "because you want your persuasion message going to the right people," the right supporters to turn out for campaigns because "if you want to turn out a voter you want to be reasonably sure they are going to vote for your candidate," and knowing which issues voters care about.

Tailoring the message


"With the rise of the Internet it would be very hard for a candidate to talk out of both sides of their mouth on an issue-anything they say would be immediately out there-so you wouldn't try to tailor their message in different ways, but you would know how much to tailor their message," Strasma said.

Strategic Telemetry lists a number of impressive statistics on its Web site. So far its microtargeting work has identified 34,208,571 Democratic target voters, including 7,368,609 voters in strongly Republican rural and exurban areas, and 23,616,066 likely undecided voters, and determined the strength of voter support for or in opposition to more than 35 issues and the level of motivation among Republican and Democrat base voters. Over the course of 2006, Strategic Telemetry's microtargeting scores were applied to more than 95 million voters.

Carl Clark, executive director at SPIN, advises campaigns at the local level, from town council nominations to legislative races. He said campaigning is not what it used to be.

"In the last quarter of the last century you would have voter registration drives, but when it came down to do elections, since there were limited resources, [politicians] would put resources into trying to get people they knew were going to vote to vote for them," Clark said.

"So they did all this work getting people registered, but they were never contacted after that, so new voters didn't vote. And it became harder to win elections," he said.

The advent of personal computing, faster processing and cheaper storage has changed all that. "Instead of looking at voters who were already going to vote for us and wasting all that money, [microtargeting] tools have made it a lot easier," Clark said. "You don't have to have a Ph.D. You just have to understand politics. You know your business model, what the software does and how to apply it, and you can get a whole lot of value out of it and, in our case, win a lot more elections."

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