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The Other Advantage of Opting Out

I’m actually reading the book on political targeting you see advertised along the left-hand column*. One thing it underscores is that a little bit of information can go a long way. If you simply know someone’s name and either their address or their telephone prefix, you can determine their location (with 100 percent accuracy), their gender (with virtually 100 percent accuracy), their race (with high accuracy), their income level (with fairly high accuracy), and possibly something about their age. By cross-referencing other databases, you might also know something about their past voting behavior, and their level of engagement at different phases of the campaign. You have even more information if you know their employer and occupation, as required on FEC disclosure forms.

So apart from greasing the wheels of the campaign, the other thing that private fundraising provides a campaign is an incredibly rich source of data: essentially a real-time, n-dimensional focus group of its supporters.

There are innumerable situations in which this could be useful. Suppose that, in early September, a 527 group launches an attack on Barack Obama’s patriotism. Fundraising slackens in the South, and among voters identified as age 55 and older; you can measure this stuff literally almost overnight. That would suggest that the threat is real, and that you need to combat the attack more forcefully. Alternatively, suppose that the same thing happens, but there is a huge surge in fundraising, particularly from new donors. Then, you might infer that your base will do the work of combating the ads for you, that they might be backfiring to begin with, and that you can keep things more at arm’s-length.

Suppose that later that month, McCain starts hitting the offshore drilling issue again. You detect that you are getting very few first-time donations in New Jersey and Florida, states that might benefit from an offshore drilling program. That might underscore the importance of playing defense on the issue, or, more drastically, pulling resources out of Florida to make sure that you win in Colorado instead.

Suppose that, in early October, Carly Fiorina goes on TV and says she doesn’t trust Barack Obama on women’s issues. A mild, Wes Clark type controversy of ensues. But suppose that you notice that in the ensuing 48 hours, fundraising decreases among ex-Clinton supporters. So you send out a mailer to people identified as likely Clinton voters, which highlight McCain’s pro-life position.

Fundraising data isn’t the only way to collect this sort of information — but it’s a particularly efficient one, especially for a campaign that relies heavily on Internet financing and has thousands of donations rolling in each day. If it makes the difference of being able to react to a dangerous situation 24 hours sooner than you might otherwise, or seeing an extra move ahead, that’s how campaigns are won and lost.

* Disclosure: I do not benefit at the margins if you purchase this product — the ad is already paid for at a fixed rate and is not based on click-throughs. The publisher was kind enough, however, to send me a free copy.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.