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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

Many of you may know what a voter file is – it’s the database of registered voters in a given state/district to which campaigns buy access. Voters’ names, ages, phone numbers, addresses, alternate addresses, official political party registration (if applicable) all go in there. For anyone who’s ever been surprised to receive a phone call from a political campaign and wondered how they got their number, especially if it’s a cell number (“I’m on the Do Not Call List!”), political campaigns are exempt from that rule, and your number is in the voter file.

Not all voter files are created equal. Some consist of a giant, amorphous lump of data. Some voter files are corrupted by sloppiness, mistakes and incompletions. But some voter files are finely honed tools of accurate information. Therein lies much of the competition in a campaign’s ground game. To be able to get your voters to the polls and to work on the persuadable voters, you first have to know exactly who they are. For anyone who’s ever volunteered for a campaign and been instructed at the outset to record accurate info in their lists, this is why.

Some states keep track of partisan registration. Others, such as Montana, do not have party registration, so it falls to information like, “voted in the Democratic primary” as a way to begin culling targeted voters. Well-funded and smart campaigns spend major time and money from an early stage first identifying voters as Democrats/Republicans/Undecideds/Other, then deciding who they will try and target for persuasion, and finally who they will swarm with contacts over the final few days in the GOTV (get out the vote) effort.

The more money a campaign has, and the better it spends that money, it builds a field staff who begins ID’ing voters from very early on, usually finding lots of soft support and undecideds and a few strongly committed people. The staff then begins a pyramid scheme of recruiting volunteers to make further voter contact. If one staff organizer can call 400 numbers in an evening and reach 100 live people and get partial or full information out of 50 of them, then an organizer who spends all evening calling to find 5 volunteers to make 400 calls each is a more efficient use of that organizer’s time. (It also quickly builds up in an organizer disdain for people who just yak on blog sites without taking action, and a deep sense of gratitude for the people who actually show up and make calls or knock on doors.)

Through phone calls, through doorknocking, through information gleaned from sign up sheets and cards at rallies and picnics and other events, the campaign staff refines and refines its own understanding of which voters it can count on, which ones it might be able to persuade with targeted messaging, and which ones would be a waste of energy. Since voters can change their minds, any given voter might have a record of repeated contacts in the database. They might have been reached by phone in March, met at their door in May, on the phone again in August, and on the phone again in October. Their support may have never wavered, or the different contacts might have tracked iffy support.

Voter files also have information about how often that voter has voted. Do they vote in general elections only, or are they a regular primary voter? Have they voted only once in the past 3 elections? Do they early/absentee vote?

Where there is early voting – and this is one of the reasons good campaigns put such an emphasis on it – access to the voter file allows a campaign to see which specific voters have returned their ballots, because when the election board gets the ballot back, they upload the data and campaigns can see who’s procrastinating and who’s not. Obviously that vote hasn’t been unsealed, but if your campaign registered that person to vote, they told you they were supporting your candidate, you alerted them to the option of early voting, they requested an early ballot, they then returned that ballot to the elections office and the elections office noted electronically that they’d returned it, well, you can save yourself some resources about having to call that voter or knock on her door to remind them on Election Day. Resources instead can be placed elsewhere. It’s one of the reasons that Oregon, for example, with its total mail-in process, is a field organizer’s dream. You get to see exactly who’s voted so far and who hasn’t, and focus on the ones who haven’t.

For those of you unfamiliar with this process, you are surely getting the picture that it’s critical to have excellent organization, motivation and accuracy in the data collecting/voter identifying process. And how critical it is to start early and have money to build a staff. And to find the right staff – the best pyramid builders. If you’ve ever read on anecdotal blogs about volunteers going to this or that office to make phone calls, knock on doors, etc., from the campaign’s perspective it’s all about collecting all that data and pipelining it into the system accurately in quick turnaround so that the next day’s wave of human effort is that much more efficient. When you read some blurb from somewhere that Obama’s team made 1 million contacts in such and such a small primary state (particularly in a state where that’s around 3 times the number of voters combined on both sides), the reason that is a meaningful number is that voter file is probably very, very useful by now.

It’s also one way you find out about what the other side is doing in terms of messaging and their own voter contact – you note the anecdotal reports of the phone calls or mailers the people you talk to are receiving. Reporting what you’re hearing then informs the top staff so that they can decide if they need to counter the messaging and if so, how.

Some of you, particularly in the wake of the FISA brou-ha-ha, may be sensitive to the idea of campaigns collecting a lot of data out of innocent-seeming conversations. But if you are a political partisan and even an objective observer you understand the efficiency merit and competitive edge in having the most complete voter file possible. If Barack Obama’s campaign helps refine the voter file list for Democrats in, say, Washington State, then later on the woman running for the Washington state legislature in her local House district can access the same file and compile a list of doors she’s going to knock on that weekend. Maybe she feels like finding all the voters who regularly vote Democratic, or maybe she feels like talking to regular Republican voters to see if she can persuade them to support her in the local race. She can slice and dice the data to compile a list of phone numbers and addresses for her own contacts. If the voter file helps her make contacts and win rather than lose, now we’re talking about how a 50-state strategy helps build political parties.

People don’t like to be bothered, most of them, and most people don’t like to call up 400 total strangers a night to quiz them on their political leanings. It’s draining, especially for introverts. But that’s the ground work of campaigns. Every drop in that bucket for either side helps on Election Day. (And by the way, screw yard signs. What a total waste of time.)

Now, a word about Virginia, and the Democratic resurgence there. I lived in Charlottesville for awhile (shout out to Greenberry’s coffee), but I wasn’t active politically. So I have no direct experience with ground work there. But one of the reasons Virginia’s elections are getting more and more competitive is that, from what I’ve heard from a number of firsthand sources who have worked cycles in Virginia, is that that voter file is as good a state voter file as Democrats have anywhere. It’s more than just changing demographics in NoVa.

The quality of Virginia’s voter file makes sense. Gubernatorial races in 2001 and 2005 resulted in big Democratic wins (Mark Warner and Tim Kaine). 2004 was a Presidential year with plenty of resources allocated to voter contact in Virginia, 2006 was the Congressional wave year of Jim Webb’s upset win in which the DSCC spent massively, and 2007 featured many state legislative races with individual campaign budgets in the mid-high hundreds of thousands of dollars. In off years like 2007, organizers who work campaign cycles come off of national election cycles looking for the action. There isn’t much – a handful of special election races, the Kentucky governor’s race last year, and Virginia. In 2007, ironically, it was the Virginia legislative races that attracted many quality organizers who weren’t early presidential staffers.

By explaining this aspect of campaigns to those who aren’t already aware and by highlighting Virginia, I don’t mean to say that 1+1=2, that Democrats will therefore win Virginia. What I do mean to suggest, a bit building on yesterday’s discussion of MN and WI, is that the campaigns know where they need to pour resources. The contrast in yesterday’s post was the comment by an anonymous McCain high-level staffer about what the internal polls showed in Minnesota and Wisconsin if Pawlenty were picked, contrasted with the actual behavior of Barack Obama’s campaign not even deigning to put Pawlenty’s home state of Minnesota in the top 18 ad states or the 17 states receiving 3,600 organizing fellows. There’s no bias in inferring how the Obama camp is perceiving Minnesota’s chances based on that observance of actual behavior. It’s even possible that Obama’s staff is wildly miscalculating Minnesota, and my conclusions that the McCain camp comments were Lanny Davis/Terry McAuliffe-esque hype are totally wrong. But if I concede that it’s possible I’m wrong, those who disagree with me should certainly lend a lot of weight to the telegraphed signals about what Obama’s camp thinks of those Minnesota chances. Action (ad buys and organizing fellow deployments) speaks louder than words (insider comments to a reporter).

Despite the sturm und drang over how a long primary season could “weaken” the Democratic nominee, the big advantage in having the Democrats go through a 50-state competitive primary is that 50 voter files just improved even before the general election re-refines them. Massive volunteer lists were compiled to insta-build those pyramids I talked about. Dismissing the value of social networking organizations and internet small-dollar fundraising is a huge mistake, in my view.

I’d like to read in some of the comments anecdotal evidence – on both partisan sides – about which state voter files look particularly good or bad, just out of curiosity. I can say that Montana’s seems pretty good for Dems (the Tester race meant massive DSCC resources were spent improving the thing), and Texas’ file needed a ton of work as of a couple years ago.

(PS – “a Saturday for beer and baseball?” Pfft. The beer’s ok, but how bout rounds 2-7 of the NHL Draft and a little poker? Now that’s what I’m talking about. Alex Pietrangelo, baby.)

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