In Virginia, McAuliffe Crawls Personal Data to Win Undecided Votes
Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe was at the forefront of data-driven campaigns about a decade ago, when, as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, he spearheaded the creation of a database full of 170 million potential Democratic voters nationwide.
Now he finds himself in the same spot. This time, he’s the first candidate in a statewide election to scale President Barack Obama‘s wildly successful digital 2012 campaign in an effort to energize potential supporters in a state where strikingly low voter turnout in years following presidential elections has not helped Democrats at all.
“We knew one of our challenges going in here was if we can make this electorate look more like the electorate that voted for Barack Obama twice,” Alex Kellner, McAuliffe’s campaign digital director, told Mashable, referring to how Virginia has been a blue state in the past two presidential elections. “That had to be our No. 1 goal.”
So they built a system that identified potential voters who may not go to the polls but, if they did, would likely vote for McAuliffe. Another part of the model sought out constituents who were on the fence about the Democratic candidate versus his Republican opponent, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. They devised tactics and crafted messages for different groups of people within those two sets.
The McAuliffe campaign, much like Obama for America in 2012, discovered that the best way to convince constituents to get out of their house on election day, or to vote blue, was through other constituents.
“Identifying and contacting voters in non-presidential years is actually more effective,” said Matt Dover, director of campaigns for Civis Analytics, a firm that helps manage data for progressive campaigns and founded by alumni of Obama For America. “In local elections, it’s even more important that friends are talking to their neighbors and encouraging them to vote.”
In this case, that also means Facebook friends. The first step in getting peers to share McAuliffe’s messages is identifying the fence-sitters by piecing together their menagerie of online profiles.
“There’s still one us, but there’s these multiple identities,” Carol Davidsen, former director of Media Integration and Targeted Marketing for Obama’s last campaign, told Mashable. “There’s no button someone pushes that gives you the answers.”
After finding enough undecided voters, the McAuliffe campaign team took a look at their social networks to search for strong supporters. They then crafted issue-specific messages and reached out to those supporters to ask if they would share the messages with friends who still weren’t set on their election-day plans.
“We’ve seen really good conversion rates,” Kellner said. “I mean to the tune of 25% of people who receive these ads will click through.” That number may not sound like a lot, but think about how many ads you click versus how many you see on a daily basis. Just as door-to-door campaigning is more effective than TV ads, personal Facebook messages get through more easily than whatever a candidate posts on their wall.
Those messages didn’t cost the McAuliffe campaign one cent, but cash restrictions have forced their other ads to become a bit more general than those of the Obama campaign. Though the budget and staff weren’t small, they would not allow McAuliffe’s team to use as many tools to get their message out or target as many potential voter groups.
“The menu is the same, you just have to pick fewer items,” Kellner said. “We have one of the biggest digital teams basically in the history of state-wide races, and there’s just four of us,” he added later.
Obama’s team didn’t have that problem.
“When you have a 15-person online media team like they did last year, they were able to do a lot more testing and scale to make sure their messages were really cutting through,” Kellner said.
McAuliffe’s group has only spent 12% to 15% of their media budget on online ads, according to Kellner, about 5% to 8% less than what Obama’s campaign spent. It has also relied heavily on content that is broad but shareable, such as infographics and inspirational messages.
Offline, in a series called “Cuccinelli’s Virginia,” ads took a Republican candidate’s voting decision and envisioned a commonwealth under that candidate’s governorship. Some of Cuccinelli’s most controversial stances have involved his desire to remove common forms of birth control from shelves.
“It’s finding messages that matter to [voters],” Kellner said. “Our opponent has spent his career on being kind of a crusader on social issues in a way that will motivate people [to vote for us] we hope.”
Despite the positive signs in click-through rates and the polls, Kellner said, there’s no real way to know how effective the targeted advertising has been until the results are in, which makes his life all the more nerve-racking.
“Hopefully election day will prove us out,” Kellner said. “But things seem to be working well.”
Image: Alex Wong/Getty Images