A city council candidate walks a neighborhood, looking for votes.
In her hand is a smartphone with a special app, blinking now as she approaches your home.
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She taps the icon. In an instant, she knows your name and much more. Your earnings, education, religion, the groups you belong to, the magazines you buy. Your party affiliations. Your past emails on political issues.
Where your kids go to school and which TV shows you watch. What you paid for your home. The last time you met at the coffee shop.
The detailed digital profile makes her conversation easy, even friendly. Taxes for you. Schools next door. Law enforcement down the street.
Some houses can be skipped: no potential votes here, the phone says. That vision or a version of it is popping up in political campaigns across the country.
“It’s a completely different environment,” said Stephanie Sharp, a Johnson County officeholder and consultant who uses and sells a version of the app. “There’s a gold mine of data.
You’re not cold calling when knocking on doors anymore. You know a little bit about your relationship with someone.”
No one is throwing the yard signs away. But the big-data digital revolution rocking media, entertainment, retailing and sports is coming to politics.
The change is arriving at a blistering pace.
“Things are moving very quickly,” said Jared Suhn of Singularis, a political consulting firm. “You shouldn’t be doing one thing anymore. You should be doing 10 things to 10 different groups of people.”
The shift is built around sophisticated and relatively inexpensive hardware and software that now give campaigns rich stores of private and public information — powerful tools for identifying voters and winning elections.
“Ten years ago it was TV and mail and radio,” Suhn said. “Now, you have so much more on-the-ground canvassing going on, strategic grassroots operations, digital stuff online.
There’s a way to get your message out.”
That message is first sharpened by polling and outreach, then reshaped for easy distribution to specific voters.
“You can target people literally to the house,” longtime consultant Jeff Roe said.
Fresh digital technologies emerge in every election cycle, enabling candidates and campaigns to become even more efficient and effective. A campaign’s most important hire is no longer the paid-media guru, it’s the algorithm guy.
Kansas City-based consultant Marcus Leach said combing through digital data allows him to instantly link voters with candidates and campaigns with friends and neighbors.
“It takes only a single ‘like,’ ‘share,’ or mention on Facebook or Twitter,” he said, “and our servers will automatically data mine that person’s Facebook, LinkedIn, look for associations, look for friends.”
The digital revolution in politics is relatively well-known to consultants and campaign managers, but candidates are now catching on too.
“You have to expand your footprint. To a different universe,” said Kelly Kultala, a Democrat now running for the 3rd district House seat in Kansas.
The move to a digitized democracy began to accelerate six years ago when then-candidate Barack Obama successfully used email and a social media presence to reach younger voters and raise money.
His campaign saw the future. Voters who signed up to learn Obama’s vice presidential pick found themselves in an email database, becoming the foundation for his voter contacts for years.
By 2012, Obama’s digital targeting operation blanketed the country, identifying and turning out voters in battleground states like Ohio.
Mitt Romney was far behind.
“Marrying grassroots politics with technology and analytics, they successfully contacted, persuaded and turned out their margin of victory,” the Republican party’s own post-election study found. “There are many lessons to be learned from their efforts.”
Suhn, who works with Republicans, says the party is working hard to fix the problem. “Everybody is catching up,” he said.
That could include state-level Democrats, who’ve often grumbled that Obama’s campaign refused to share its digital secrets. The national party is now considering a major data share, Sharp said.
But the move to digitize voter contacts isn’t driven entirely by partisan politics and isn’t limited to deep data sets and microtargeting.
Even low-visibility, nonpartisan races and issue campaigns can use digital tools. They’re easy, effective — and cheap.
Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are free. So are Instragram, LinkedIn, and whatever other social media site pops up this afternoon.
Websites can be produced and put online for a fraction of the cost of a slick video or 30-second TV commercial.
“You can find your facts, and you can find your Q and A, and you can find your opinion online,” said Pat O’Neill, a Kansas City campaign veteran who advised a winning candidate in the recent mayoral election in Independence.
Indeed, the use of low-cost digital tools, plus big-data and microtargeting techniques, mirror the revolution in big league baseball outlined in the book “Moneyball.” As with the Oakland A’s baseball team, the goal is now to firmly identify voter “bargains” cheaply instead of wasting campaign funds on high-cost, low-efficiency mass media.
“The cost of yard signs has doubled,” Sharp said. “Have you seen the cost of postage?
Every dollar has to stretch farther.”
Big data is even affecting political TV commercials.
“You can actually run one ad to a TV in a home, and in the very next home you run a different ad — based on what their
habits are like,” Roe said.