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A History Of Data In American Politics (Part 1): William Jennings Bryan To Barack Obama

“You’re trying to mobilize people. And you only have limited resources. So you need to target.”


In 2008 and again in 2012, the Obama campaign earned a reputation as being on the cutting edge of data. And in many ways it was justified. By putting in motion a “grand technology experiment,” his presidential campaign was able to gather deep data on individual voters within a household for the first time. That information then fed and refined a massive database that served a fairly traditional function: Call voters and knock on their doors to convince them to turn out on election day.

But data-driven politics didn’t start with Barack Obama. University of North Carolina professor Daniel Kreiss likes to give a presentation that opens with a quote from 1891. That year, James Clarkson, chairman of the Republican National Committee, spent two years building a voter file that featured the “age, occupation, nativity, residence and all the other facts in each votersʼ life, and had them arranged alphabetically, so that literature could be sent constantly to every voter directly.”

On this week’s episode of our podcast What’s The Point, Kreiss presents a deep history of political data in the United States from the 1890s through the 2008 campaign. This is the first of a two-part podcast. The next episode will discuss the 2008, 2012 and current campaigns, including reporting from Iowa about how the current candidates for president are targeting voters. (Update: You can now listen to Part 2 here.)

To listen, stream or download the full episode above. Below, a timeline of notable excerpts.

Highlights in the timeline of political data

1890s: William Jennings Bryan’s card catalog

By the end of the 1890s William Jennings Bryan had built up a large file through index cards on a lot of his supporters. Bryan was receiving on average over 2,000 letters and telegrams a day from supporters, and received during the course of that election 250,000 letters in all. And Jennings Bryan’s brother and wife created a card file of all these supporters. They went through the letters and they wrote down things like party affiliation, job, religion, income, and kept this file updated for 30 years. Historian Michael Kazin tells us that this had about 200,000 names in 1897, and then half a million by 1912. So it became, Kazin argues, the first independent voter database — in essence supporter network — that could be used and mobilized throughout Bryan’s political career.

Mid-20th century: The rise of television

In the 19th century, when party elites were determining who party nominees were going to be, it was less important for candidates to make appeals to the general public. But once you saw a move towards open primaries, television advertising became much more important, particularly in the primary process. And the air war came to dominate contemporary electoral politics.

TV has a couple of advantages. Television doesn’t require large amounts of volunteers. It doesn’t require large amounts of campaign workers. You could reach all voters in a particular district. And targeting on television becomes more sophisticated with the growth of more channels. In the 1960s, you can run an advertisement on the big three networks and reach something like 80 percent of the American electorate. But by the time of the cable revolution in the early 1980s, you can much more finely grain television advertisements to start targeting on the basis of cable networks and who might be watching those particular networks.

1980s: The GOP perfects direct mail

By the mid-’80s, direct mail becomes a much more systemized practice. When you talk to people who did this work in the 1980s, [they say that] none of it was standardized in the ways that we would think about it today. Different [commercial] vendors had different lists. Magazine subscription lists, for example. And then, of course, one of the stories on the Republican side of the aisle was that, the more you do it, the more you send out direct mail, the bigger your list of names gets and the more you can return to people over time.

2000-2004: Microtargeting

After 2000, one of the things that happens within the Republican party is that Karl Rove and then-party chairman Ken Mehlman looked to the Al Gore effort and said, “What we’re gonna do is basically invest in exactly these sorts of voter contact operations that the Democrats had on the union side, and build a very strong micro-targeting and canvassing effort for 2004.” They melded that to their Internet operations and built out Voter Vault, their voter database and interface infrastructure. And really, by the 2004 election, they built what was by far the most sophisticated electoral effort at the time, driven by extensive micro-targeting, voter contact and turnout operation online.

Up through the 2004 cycle, micro-targeting was really about identifying large segments of voters who had certain consumer habits, and psychological characteristics, that would make them likely to support your candidate or your party. So it wasn’t so much about the individualized targeting like what happened in 2008 and 2012. It was about creating large-scale segments of voters, and then looking to turn out those particular segments at the polls.

2004: The legacy of Howard Dean and the rise of Democratic tech

While Dean was chair, the Democratic party put in place their core data ecosystem and architecture — that remains the model for the party to this day. The Republicans in ’04 were far more sophisticated than the Democrats when it came to voter database technology, they were much more standardized. On the Democratic side, data was a mess.

One of the things that Dean wanted to do as chair of the party was to create a new Democratic data infrastructure for the entire party. And to that end Dean was really the person who created a standardized national voter file by basically aggregating the states’ party voter files. It was a system for managing it, maintaining it, doing hygiene on it — as well as appending it with commercial data.

The Howard Dean campaign changed perceptions within the Democratic party of how important things like digital organizing was. It led to massive new investments across the party network in the areas of digital.

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Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.