Voter data gathering reshapes Mich. politics, sparks privacy fears
Lansing — It was four days out from the 2016 presidential election when then-Michigan GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel got the call: The Republican National Committee’s advanced voter score software was, for the first time, predicting Donald Trump would narrowly win the state.
McDaniel, at the Lansing Capitol Region Airport preparing for a rally with vice presidential nominee Mike Pence, responded to RNC Chair Reince Priebus by asking him to get Trump back to Michigan as many times as possible before Election Day to build on the momentum.
Trump was in Macomb County two days later and ended his campaign with an election eve rally in Grand Rapids. He won by 10,704 votes.
“And then we also did a number of digital ads using our data to target the different voters that we really saw we had a chance of persuading and turning out to vote in order to win,” recalled Steve Ostrow, an RNC regional political director who worked for the state party in 2016.
“We clearly spent too much time and money here,” he added sarcastically, “because we ended up winning by 10,500 votes rather than the 7,700 we predicted.”
Increasingly complex systems allow Michigan's political parties to compile robust information about individual voters that they then use in direct appeals for a cause or candidate.
“Allowing political parties and special interest groups to have a very detailed dossier on a person’s behavior raises fundamental questions about privacy in a democracy,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, calling it a bipartisan issue.
The Michigan Democratic Party, which shares voter data with the Democratic National Committee and coordinated campaigns, responded to the devastating 2016 election by launching Project 83, an attempt reach out to voters in every state county.
“It really is about engaging folks to strengthen that data and strengthen our messaging,” spokesman Paul Kanan said. “But just as important, it’s to put in place these local infrastructures so that the local parties can do a lot of this stuff themselves.”
The RNC has spent two years building on its voter score system, which combines consumer data with voter history information to create probability rankings that inform spending, messaging and other strategy decisions. How likely are you to prefer a party, candidate or issue? There’s a voter score for that.
GOP officials say the technology — combined with trained volunteers positioned across the state — could help counter a “blue wave” in an election cycle experts believe could be strong for Democrats.
“We know we have to defy history,” Ostrow said. “That’s kind of the mantra of the RNC this cycle.”
Technology has reshaped the way political parties and campaigns operate, both on the ground and online.
“If someone is talking to a canvasser on the doors and says they really care about health care — that’s a big issue for them — they’re going to get a health care message online, one way or another,” said Josh Pugh of For Our Future, an independent Democratic group backed by labor unions and California billionaire Tom Steyer.
For Our Future is using a new tool in Michigan called “the feedback loop” that takes data from what Pugh called an “unprecedented” independent door-knocking effort and compares it with information from Google trends, public opinion polls and other sources.
Canvassers armed with voter files on mobile apps begin by asking: What issues are most important to you? Top issues identified by the Democratic group include road repairs, education funding, local infrastructure and anger toward Trump.
“What we’ve been trying to do, obviously, is use that to help us set the agenda going forward for the campaign,” Pugh said. “Because in 2016 a lot of people were blindsided by what happened because traditional polling methods, and other methods we had trusted for years, did not comport with the reality of the ground.”
Two years ago, the RNC used its voter score data to fine-tune appeals to voters who were part of what officials called the “HRC change universe” and held conflicting opinions about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“On the one hand, they were significantly more likely to vote for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump, but they believed that the country would be better suited by changing from President Obama’s policies than continuing them,” said Brian Parnitzke, director of turnout and targeting. “We had to train our volunteers on how to deliver that message.”
Privacy fears, hype
Political groups are mirroring digital marketing techniques first developed in the corporate world, but their advances have troubling implications for data privacy and security, said Chester of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Digital Democracy.
“Your data is the oil of the 21st century," he said. "It’s such a valuable commodity, and companies are willing to do anything for it, and they pay far less attention to protecting it.”
A consulting firm that worked for the RNC and other GOP clients last year reportedly left voter profile data exposed online for nearly two weeks. The Michigan Democratic Party sparked hacking fears in August when it enlisted friendly hackers for a simulated phishing test to see if they could gain access to DNC voter files.
Political groups are spending big bucks on voter data systems because it can be “incredibly valuable if you have some measure of how convincible someone is and what issues they might be convincible on,” said Matt Grossman, a political science professor and director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
But some efforts have proven to be more “hype” than substance, he said. While groups are using consumer data to add shopping habits and magazine subscriptions to voter profiles, publicly available voting information “is still the most useful thing for trying to influence elections,” Grossman said.
While Michigan does not make voters register with a political party, the state does record which partisan primaries voters participate in. That data is typically the most successful way to predict partisanship, Grossman said.
Voter privacy was tested like never before in the 2016 election cycle, when Cambridge Analytica, a firm hired by Trump’s campaign, reportedly accessed private data on more than 50 million Facebook users. It prompted a public apology from the social media giant and promises to better protect user information.
“This is not mass manipulation, but it has all the elements of an unconstrained propaganda machine that in the hands of anyone — the Democratic or Republican parties, let alone an extremist group — can cause harm to the functions of a democracy,” Chester said.
Betting big on tech
The RNC has invested roughly $200 million in data and technology since 2012, the second cycle in a row that President Barack Obama’s campaign had “very honestly kicked our (expletive),” Ostrow said. “But rather than go out and build it just around a candidate … we build it around a party-centric model so that any candidate with an R can use it.”
The voter score system uses publicly available voter information with other data, including between 2,000 and 10,000 consumer data points for each voter, said regional data director Tyler Church.
The party compares that data to results of issue-focused surveys to pick out “predictive variables, and from there, it is able to score each individual voter as a probability percent chance of doing something,” like identifying as a Republican, he said.
Operatives in both major parties say interacting with voters — whether in person or online — helps improve data and remains a critical part of successful campaigns. And both have invested in permanent infrastructure in Michigan.
“Real people, voters, Americans will beat bots, trolls and Russians every time,” said Kanan, spokesman for Michigan Democrats, “but they need to be directly involved in the effort and know their purpose.”