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How Campaigns Use of Facebook Data Might Change the 2012 Election

BY Nick Judd | Monday, October 10 2011

More than in any other race to date, Americans may experience the 2012 presidential election through precisely targeted phone calls, visits, tweets and Facebook posts — messages not from the candidates themselves, but from their own politically active friends.

If those messages come, they won't be random. As campaigns become more savvy about their data on supporters and voters, they are also becoming more and more sophisticated in the way they plan voter contact. This is already leading to new tools, like one built by NGP VAN and used in an ongoing labor campaign, that don't just encourage users to spread the message of a campaign — they help each supporter make a data-driven decision about who to contact.

The union-backed We Are Ohio campaign, organizing against changed collective bargaining laws in Ohio, uses a tool built by NGP VAN that serves as a prime example of this kind of strategy. Users who visit the tool, accessible via a web interface, can build a list from among their Facebook friends by logging in with their account. (They can also type names in one at a time.) As they identify people they'd be willing to reach out to, the tool checks an NGP VAN voter database for an existing record of that person's name, phone number and voting status. When the user has a list of the right kinds of people to call, the tool then presents the user with each voter's phone number and a script.

"We know that messages coming from your friends or your family are more powerful," Melissa Fazekas, a spokeswoman for We Are Ohio, told me Monday. At We Are Ohio, this tool is called the "friends and family program" — and it taps into the personal connections of thousands of supporters, she said.

This combines the kind of do-it-yourself action that defined the Obama 2008 campaign — in which both NGP and VAN, then separate companies, played a role — with the data-powered strategy that may become the defining characteristic of Obama 2012. But it's also a digital version of an analog tactic that's been in place for years, NGP VAN's chief executive officer, Stu Trevelyan, and VAN founder Mark Sullivan told me last week.

Sullivan told me that in Iowa in 2006, legislative caucuses would summon as many supporters as they could to sit in front of a computer running VAN's voter file software. The volunteers would check as many names as they could think of against the voter database, and each eligible voter they identified would get a card addressed to them, with their friend's name and return address.

"In key legislative races they'd tell the candidate, 'you've got to get everybody you know to come and do this thing,'" Sullivan told me. "Everybody likes telling you how many people they know."

This takes that idea and digitizes the entire process, with Facebook integration for good measure. The NGP VAN tool is just a starting point, limited in some sense by Facebook's restrictions on which data about users that applications can keep and how long the data can be stored.

Sullivan says the tool is primarily interesting as "a really strong foundation for a system of delivering Internet-based tasks to groups of users." The same system could ask different portions of an email list to do different things with their friends — knock on their doors, for instance.

Neither Sullivan or Trevelyan was ready to say that this tool would reappear in its present form on the 2012 campaign trail. But it isn't the only example of campaign software developers starting to think about what could happen when campaigns integrate the data available to them, and it marks the early appearance in the field of a new strategy — merging campaign data with the data each supporter keeps about their contacts, stored away in places like Facebook profiles — that I expect we'll be seeing more of in the future.

This strategy is already starting to spread. Earlier this year, Politico's Michelle Quinn called me to ask about a new tool Votizen built for acting San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee's campaign, which does more or less exactly the same thing that the NGP VAN tool does.

In our recent conversation, Trevelyan was focused on NGP VAN's software as part of "the mechanical turkization of politics" — but that's a trend that has been burgeoning on the right and the left for years. Again, what's new here is the level of social intelligence going into what the campaign is asking the volunteer to do. And it puts into focus one aspect of an abstract principle we've already spotted.

Writing for CNN, techPresident editor Micah Sifry observed in a piece that ran on Sunday that President Barack Obama's re-election campaign will be focused on data, and other candidates would have to do the same if they hoped to compete:

For a campaign that tapped the volunteer energies of millions of people in 2008 and appears to need all the help it can get in 2012, these kinds of fine-grained technologies could make a key difference. While the Republican field (and bloggers and the press) has been focused on how their candidates are doing with social networking, Obama's campaign operatives are devising a new kind of social intelligence that will help drive campaign resources where they are most needed.

Facebook's role as a data source is not quite what Micah is focused on; he's more interested in the way Obama's data scientists may be determining where the campaign puts boots on the ground, for instance. But on the micro scale, any campaign volunteer or staffer with Facebook on their phone is carrying around a treasure trove of data about their contacts: Almost all of their friends, how often they talk online, what they talk about, even when they go to the same events.

Integrate that into the kind of data alchemy that's already going on and it has the potential to change the way campaigns work — imagine if those precisely placed campaign door-knock teams were built such that each member was going to be visiting some people they already knew, based on a quick check of their Facebook profiles. It's a given that people are more likely to listen when they're contacted by a friend; using social media in this context is about increasing the number of those personal interactions on a campaign's behalf.

It's a new idea, it's just now being tested out, and it's unclear yet if there will be a winning formula for putting it into practice. But the idea is tremendously interesting, and its use in the Ohio campaign to restore collective bargaining rights is an early experiment. After ballot initiative votes are tallied for Ohio's November elections, we'll have a better idea of how it might be used in the 2012 campaigns.

"It's a new technology that's never really been implemented before," Fazekas, of We Are Ohio, told me. Later in the conversation, she added, "the first time you ever really use something you have to work out the kinks."