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October 22, 2014

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It’s amazing what political candidates know about you

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Steve Marcus

Voters may cast their ballots in secret, but that doesn’t mean campaigns have no idea how you’re voting. Technology allows them to craft messages tailored specifically to you.

A campaign operative sits down at a computer and types the name of a voter in Henderson.

Within seconds, he learns the person’s age, his address, his wife’s name, his religion, his affinity for both Democratic President Barack Obama and Nevada Republican Congressman Joe Heck, and a list of every election he’s voted in back to 2006.

Now the campaign aide has enough information to craft a unique political advertisement directed at this specific voter.

Given a few more seconds, the operative could enter your name and find similar information.

How it works

Although consultants such as Walsh and Massicotte have an incentive to publicly talk about the services they’re selling, most political candidates and party representatives don’t want to talk about their data and generally won’t say what they know about voters.

Although party databases are held as trade secrets, political campaigns generally target you much like other digital advertisers do.

The digital wizardry

Say you search for a pair of red high heels with glittery sequins on Zappos.com, the Las Vegas-based online shoe retailer. Then, a day later, as you explore the far reaches of the Internet on websites unrelated to shoe retailers, all you see are advertisements for red high heels with glittery sequins.

As you may expect, this is no coincidence.

Your Web browser and smartphone chart your digital travels and note where you linger.

Often, you are allowing this tracking when you agree to access an application that tracks your location or agree to install a Web browser on your computer.

Companies bundle and sell this tracking information to marketers and advertisers, who then target you with personalized ads.

Political campaigns might go further. A Zappos.com salesman is not likely to show up at your house asking you to buy a pair of red high heels with glittery sequins.

But in the coming campaign season, don’t be surprised if you get nailed with all sorts of digital messages promoting candidates or measures and still get a knock at your front door, with a candidate or a volunteer presenting a campaign message tailored specifically to you.

“Honestly, if voters knew how much we knew about them, they’d be kind of freaked out,” said a Nevada Republican working on a candidate’s campaign this year.

Enabled by an eruption of private and public data available for purchase, political parties, candidates and political action committees have over the past few years amassed troves of data about voters nationwide. They are using data-intensive practices to find you — at home and on your television, desktop, tablet or mobile phone — and specifically advertise to you.

Although common practice among large national groups, the proliferation of voter-targeting technology has allowed even local candidates to emulate big, national political campaigns, meaning even local and state candidates could be targeting you during this year’s campaign season.

“The technology is starting to work its way down, and it’s perfectly suited for the city council candidate who can’t (afford to) get on TV,” said Chris Massicotte, co-owner of DSpolitical, a firm that specializes in targeting voters via individualized digital advertising.

This election year, candidates and campaigns in Nevada are expected to collectively spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy access to sophisticated technologies and databases that can be used to target specific voters.

In the 2012 election, Democratic candidates in Nevada spent about $44,000 on one vendor alone, NGP Van, a campaign technology company. Groups like that buy data from a variety of public and private sources, which they use to compile valuable information about voters for candidates.

“It’s kind of scary and impressive all at the same time,” said Assemblyman Paul Anderson, R-Las Vegas, who is helping direct election strategy for Republicans in the state Assembly. “It just gives us a clearer picture of what our folks are about and what they’re interested in and what they’re not.”

For the campaign operatives and candidates, it’s a matter of efficiency. The more they know about you, the better they’re able to craft messages specifically for you.

If campaign operatives for a Democratic candidate know you always vote Republican, they won’t spend a dime on you. If the same campaign knows you are, say, a registered Democrat and private polling in their database shows you identify with socially progressive causes — but that you vote infrequently — they might send you reminders on your phone and computer and in your mailbox to go vote on Election Day.

“It can increase the efficacy and connection to the candidate,” said Fred Lokken, a political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College. “This is a more surgical approach to campaigning as opposed to the blunderbuss approach.”

Let’s say a Democratic candidate runs a television advertisement encouraging people to vote for her. The ad reaches everyone who happens to be watching TV at the moment the ad airs, including people who don’t vote and Republicans who will never vote for her.

Instead, groups like DSpolitical are selling Democratic candidates digital advertising technologies that allow candidates to separate voters into hundreds of categories and target specific voters — say, 18- to 25-year-old Democrats who vote in every election and have donated to campaigns — on their computers, tablets and phones.

A Democratic candidate might simply need to remind a steady Democratic voter to go vote. That same candidate might ask a rabidly Democratic voter to donate money or time to the campaign.

Because the ads are digital, they’re often interactive, as well.

You might, for instance, receive an advertisement that encourages you to install a calendar appointment on your phone that will pop up on Election Day and remind you to vote.

With the proliferation of smartphones, Jim Walsh at DSpolitical said this is a new front in reaching voters.

Walsh has made the calculation that a digital medium can trump the actual political message.

“We really think whoever wins mobile in 2014 wins, period,” Walsh said.

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