Welcome to Campaign Data 101, where we break down the what, how, and why of using data to run an innovative and efficient campaign. In this four-part series, we’ll cover the following:
Field, Messaging, and Policy
Finance and Internal Operations
If you’re ready, let’s get started!
How to Think About Data if You’re Not a “Data Person”
What is data and why does it matter?
Think about all the data that flows through your life: the phone numbers you call, the addresses you visit, the money you spend, and the websites you search. Now imagine collecting and saving that data to understand patterns of behavior better and set goals. This is how most modern apps work, helping us track activity and expand our networks, and the same concept applies to campaigning.
Although the idea of campaign data analysis can seem intimidating at first, the practices that we use for finding voters and optimizing campaign resources mirror many of our everyday activities. Data is information, and in a campaign, data is what helps you understand your community, district, resources, messaging, and strategy.
Data is information, and in a campaign, data is what helps you understand your community, district, resources, messaging, and strategy.
How to use data in a campaign
In understanding how data works within a political campaign, let’s think about the five traditional buckets of campaign activity:
Field: The ground game that a campaign runs to register, reach, and persuade voters. A campaign’s field operation includes door-knocking, phone banking, events, and more.
Messaging: The tactics you use to reach voters, communicate your vision, maintain contact throughout the campaign, and drive turnout on election day. This includes the content on your website, flyers, emails, texts, and social media channels.
Policy: The platform that you run on and how big-picture issues like healthcare, civil rights, education, and infrastructure apply to the people in your district.
Finance: Money raised and spent to staff the campaign and distribute your messaging.
Internal Operations: What’s happening inside the campaign, including the number of volunteer shifts covered, candidate time allotment, and team project management.
“The work that we did with Bluebonnet made me not just a better candidate, but a better Senator because I know more about my community.”
— Minnesota State Senator Aric Putnam
Data plays a role in every part of your campaign. Learning how to understand, organize, and leverage that information will help you optimize your resources and reach your goals.
What Data We Use
The primary source of data a campaign has available to it is the voter file. The voter file is a record of registered voters in a district, usually accessible by contacting the local party or the Secretary of State’s office. The voter file contains public information about each voter, including their name, address, and party affiliation (although whether party affiliation is shown varies by state).
The voter file provides vital information on your voting population, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Bluebonnet Data Fellows often help their campaigns enrich voter file data, overlaying the information provided with other data sources that add context, including US Census data, FEC data, and historical election data. Other companies such as Civis Analytics, L2, and Aristotle also help you manage voter file data, usually layering in additional data on phone numbers and email addresses.
Once you have access to voter file data, it is best managed in a Customer Relationship Manager (CRM). In a campaign, a CRM is used to store and parse voter information. Some commonly used CRMs in the Democratic political space are NGP-VAN, NationBuilder, Blue Vote, and Blue Utopia. You can utilize these systems by purchasing access directly from the company or joining a group contract set up by your state party.
Understanding Bias in Data
To build the best campaign, it’s essential to understand where there is bias in data analysis and how you can work to mitigate bias in your projects.
First, there is bias in how data is collected. Voter suppression tactics such as voter file purges and gerrymandering result in voter information being left out or intentionally removed from the voter file, usually resulting in an outsized impact on marginalized communities. In a 2008 report, the Brennan Center for Justice stated that “every single purge list [they had] reviewed has been flawed,” meaning that the purge was conducted improperly and resulted in the loss of viable information. For example, in 2004, Florida planned to remove 48,000 “suspected felons” from its voter rolls, but upon review, the Brennan Center found that “many of those identified were in fact eligible to vote.” Furthermore, “the purge list over-represented African Americans and mistakenly included thousands who had had their voting rights restored under Florida law.” Fortunately, this particular purge was stopped by voting rights groups, but many purges go forward without pause.
Second, there is bias in how data is presented. Data may be presented in unusable or unreadable formats, such as stored on outmoded floppy disks or in a difficult-to-navigate website. Voter data may also include voter scores, which are estimates for each voter of their partisanship or expected turnout. These scores are outputs from models and algorithms, usually trained on nationwide data. In addition to losing accuracy the more local you drill, the algorithms themselves are subject to the bias of who builds them, potentially layering in racist and sexist assumptions. Before trusting a voter score, think twice! Cross-reference the data available and dig at least one layer deeper to challenge the bias and gain a better understanding of the information available.
...the algorithms themselves are subject to the bias of who builds them...
Why is this important? Data collection and analysis will inform your campaign, and ultimately, the long-term success of your district. Data is a powerful tool for engaging more people in the political process, driving turnout, and running the most efficient campaign operation possible.
Data is a powerful tool for engaging more people in the political process, driving turnout, and running the most efficient campaign operation possible.
Resources to Learn More:
Why combatting bias can be a matter of extreme importance: Computer Algorithm Fuels Racial Bias in US Healthcare
How I’m Fighting Bias in Algorithms, a TED talk by Joy Buolamwini
“Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men” by Caroline Criado Perez
“Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy” by Cathy O’Neil
Hopefully, this post was a good primer for understanding what kind of data is used and why it’s important in the success of your campaign. In part two of our Campaign Data 101 series, we’ll be discussing how to use data in your campaign in field, messaging, and policy.
About the Author
Becca Blais is the Executive Director of Bluebonnet Data. As Bluebonnet's first employee and now Executive Director, Becca believes in the importance of investing in talent and data infrastructure at the most local level. Follow her on Twitter & Medium.