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How "Big Data" And Behavioral Science Powered Progressive Groups in 2012

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Saturday, November 10 2012

An October canvas in Richmond, ViA. Photo: Flickr/AFL-CIO

Heading into the 2012 election, people on the left were appalled by the ramifications of unlimited money pouring into politics. While progressives have their own stable of high-dollar donors and a few financial stallions in the form of some of the largest labor unions, the rise of the super PAC opened the doors for a new breed of political patron. Democrats feared their candidates in the most crucial races would be trampled under a stampede of negative advertising fed by millions in dark money.

As with the netroots in the days of Howard Dean, progressives looked to keep their chosen candidates in the race by merging technology and people power. In 2012, the outside groups looking to help Democrats this year leveraged social media, psychological research on human behavior and data on voters. This election year was especially formative for the AFL-CIO, the United States' largest labor organization, because the same changes in election law that freed corporations and individuals to fund politics without end also cleared union members to campaign not just one another but the public at large. It was also a key year for MoveOn, the progressive membership organization, which used behavioral psychology, fast-moving, database-driven technology and its massive supporter base to build a person-to-person persuasion machine.

According to the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group*, groups that spent huge amounts of money on television advertising saw abysmal returns on their investment. For example, Karl Rove's American Crossroads experienced a 1.29 percent success rate. For his related group Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies, the success rate was 13.7 percent.

American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies spent $127 million on 82,000 television spots to support Mitt Romney and his vice presidential pick Paul Ryan. The two groups also spent in support of 12 Senate and nine House candidates. Ten out of the 12 senate candidates lost their races, and four of the nine House candidates also lost, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday.

Sunlight estimates that outside groups spent a total of $1.3 billion on electioneering this campaign cycle — the most expensive campaign cycle ever. Democratic groups sunk quite a bit of money into television advertising as well, to be sure — but they also focused on ways to activate supporters throughout the campaign season, not just on election day.

"This is the first post Citizens United presidential election, and so it really was a test pitting big money against grassroots power, and I think it's pretty clear which won," said Daniel Mintz, MoveOn.org Political Action's National Director of Coordinated Campaigns. "I think you saw that with the efforts through social media, a number of which we worked on, and which we catalyzed. It gets to a point where [you ask yourself,] who are you going to trust? Your friends on social media, or some television commercial that you see every time that you turn on TV?"

Through its Share Machine program, MoveOn collected "progressive" content that might go viral, repackaged it — sometimes just by changing a headline — and sent it out to its seven million members by email, Facebook or Twitter. The program has been in operation for about a year.

Its members worked with Workers' Voice, making calls to recruit people to canvass with the AFL-CIO super PAC in swing states.

"One of the traditional strengths of the netroots is the ability of field volunteers to do fieldwork, which we did a ton of -- we did that on the presidential race, and in battleground states," Mintz told TechPresident.

"They set up canvasses, and then we plugged our 7 million members of that, and we did something pretty innovative there, where we were not only e-mailing voters in battleground states and saying: “Hey, there’s a canvas in your town this weekend, can you come?" he continued. "People do sign up that way, but way better is if they get a phone call from a fellow MoveOn member, and so we put the members of the MoveOn network not in battleground states to work to hold call parties, and they’d go online and make calls, and they’d call other MoveOn members in battleground states, and because we have the technology to get all this real-time information from Workers’ Voice, they can not just say will you volunteer? They can say, there’s a shift on Saturday at 10 a.m. at this address near you, can you make it? And sign them up right there, and we found that that drastically increased sign up rates.”

In all, MoveOn members hosted 2,183 call parties and made more than 1.5 million phone calls to swing-staters among their own membership and among the AFL-CIO's more than 12 million members.

Last September, MoveOn sent out mailers to a group of voters in a Delaware primary, listing each recipient's voter record and comparing it to their neighbors. Comparing turnout among people who received the mailer and people who didn't, MoveOn concluded that the mailers were seven times more cost effective per vote than door-to-door canvassing.

Knowledge in hand, MoveOn spent $1 million to send out 12 million of these "Vote Score" cards to voters in 11 presidential swing states, nine additional states with close Senate races and ballot initiatives, and an additional 24 other congressional districts. They were timed to arrive in mailboxes a week before Election Day.

Nick Berning, a MoveOn spokesman, said that it'll take time to see whether those cards were as effective this time around, but that the tactic was based on research from Donald P. Green and Alan S. Gerber's "Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout." A memo that MoveOn outlining its various projects this year also reported that the program incorporated research on effective persuasion from psychologist and former professor Robert Cialdini.

In addition to mobilizing people, MoveOn also raised more than a million dollars for the successful Democratic senatorial candidates Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, more than $460,000 for Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin, more than $340,000 for Congressman Chris Murphy (who beat out self-funding World Wrestling Entertainment magnate Linda McMahon,) and more than $160,000 for Sherrod Brown in Ohio. Overall, MoveOn reports that its seven million members raised more than $60 million for each of the campaigns they supported this cycle.

Other projects included high-profile stunts like flying banners in the sky advertising anti-Romney slogans at campaign events, and lower-profile but possibly more effective ones like crowdsourcing local "progressive ballot guides," and sending them to the relevant voters on their list.

"I think what we realized early on in the cycle is that we were no way we could compete with corporate interests and the shady SuperPACs and c4s," Mintz said. "There’s just no way that we on the left can compete with that. Instead, we just had to figure out ways to be creative, and to break through with creative tactics, and also to figure out who were the trusted messengers that people would listen to."

What's important with these kinds of efforts is that they can help candidates win in close races, said David Karpf, assistant professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University, and author of "The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy."

"What we got here is an outstandingly good election based on small margins, and small margins are what gets decided by having a good turnout mechanism," he said.

And he echoed Mintz's point on organizers making an effort to be smart with fewer resources.

"There's been this concerted effort, not just with the Democratic party, but within the Democratic party coalition, including groups like Workers' Voice and MoveOn, to learn what works well, and to invest their dollars well, and the Republican party just hasn't done that."

In contrast to Rove's groups, Workers' Voice saw a 75.35 percent success rate, according to Sunlight's calculations.

"The model that the Democrats have been able to apply to every form of communication has revolutionized microtargeting," said Chuck DeFeo, ecampaign manager for President George W. Bush's re-election campaign in 2004 and former ecampaign manager for the Republican National Committee during the 2002 election. "The Democrats built their model on thousands of data points -- not just static data, but dynamic data coming through social, and clearly they were able to apply those learnings from the dynamic data and layer it on top of the static consumer and voter file data and apply it across all communications channels to speak at a completely personalized level, and I really think we're going from all politics is local to all politics is personal."

While former RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman did take the scientific approach of "measure the efficacy of everything" to microtarget people in 2004, that approach hasn't kept pace at the RNC, DeFeo says, noting that the data science approach just doesn't exist on the Republican side.

"The Democrats played a fundamentally different game than what the Republicans played in 2012: It's a concern that I had all year, and it's a concern that played out," he said.

* TechPresident publisher Andrew Rasiej and editor Micah Sifry are senior advisors to the Sunlight Foundation.

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