Data Battle is Critical Front in Democrats' N.H. Presidential Primary Race

Dec 21, 2015

The fight late last week among Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee seems to have simmered down.

The DNC censured Sanders' campaign for improperly getting access to confidential voter data from Clinton's team. The restrictions have since been lifted, but the incident shone a light on a little known, but critical aspect of the 2016 presidential race: how candidates use data to identify, reach and influence potential supporters.

In the Democratic race in New Hampshire this year, the data war may well mean the difference in a tight race.

Marybeth Stocking of Lebanon, Maine spends many weeknights in the no-frills 'Bernie Sanders for President' campaign offices, a phone pressed to her ear. Most of the time it’s probably not clear how her efforts fit into the big machine of the Sanders campaign. But last month, right after a shift of calling voters, she got a sure sign that someone thinks she’s making a difference.

“I actually was just finished phone calling and my phone rang, and it was the organizer from Dover saying, ‘Congratulations, you know you reached more people than any of our volunteers all month!’ ” she recalled. The campaign gave her tickets to a big fundraising dinner with Sanders.

These phone banks – which on the surface sound like a sea of loud, discordant voices – are actually a carefully monitored piece of a campaign recon operation, preparing for a massive push in the last weeks before the primary.

The names and numbers of voters they are contacting all come from a centralized voter information database, maintained and controlled by state parties, and the Democratic National Committee.  If you've ever voted in a Democratic primary, you're probably on the list. Campaigns use it to decide who to call, which doors to knock on – in essence to find their supporters.

Sanders cheers on his troops last week at a the opening of the Rochester campaign office.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

Hunting for ‘Ones’

So when Stacey Brown, a volunteer for the Hillary Clinton Campaign in Concord, heads out to knock on doors she is using that list to hunt for "ones."

In campaign parlance, "ones" are a candidate’s firmest supporters.

They are folks like Jonathan and Meg Chorlian of Concord, who were willing to sign a card saying they commit to vote for Hillary on Primary Day. Meg says she’s also trying to convince their college-aged son to join them in voting for Clinton. “That is the push I’m trying to make, if you cast your vote this way you could be making history,” she says.

“Oh, I’m getting goose bumps thinking about it,” she says. Brown chimes in “Me too!”

The Clinton campaign ranks voters on a scale of 1 to 7, all the way from "ready to vote for Clinton tomorrow" to "voting in the Republican primary." Once the campaign knows you’re a one, you are filed away: another supporter who they will work tirelessly to get to the polls on Election Day. If you’re not a one the campaign will dog you, until they nail you down.

“I don’t know, I want to keep my options open,” says Concord resident Tim Davis, after Brown gives him her pitch in his driveway.

“Well we’re out, and we’re probably going to keep stopping by until you say I’m definitely a Hillary,” Brown tells him, laughing as she does, “We do have voter commit cards, if you want to sign one than we would direct our energies towards people who are really undecided.”

Davis signed the card, though it may have just been to get us off his porch.

‘Win-Numbers’, Models, and Databases

Once the campaign knows where you stand, they take that information back to the central office, where it’s entered into the DNC software tool, called Votebuilder, or the Voter Activation Network (VAN). That data can only be accessed by the campaign but is stored alongside the Democratic party’s voter database, which any campaign can buy access to.

A cardboard cut-out of Hillary Clinton urges volunteers in the Concord office to keep searching for supporters
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

Beth Richards, stationed resolutely in a bean bag chair in the corner of the Clinton campaign office in Concord, says she’s been doing volunteer data entry since 2007, when the campaign data revolution first got started.

She says these days “the user interface is nicer, there’s better drop downs.”

The data is tallied tabulated, driving toward a single, bottom-line number called the vote goal: how many votes the campaign thinks it will need to win the primary. It’s also often called the ‘win number’. Each camp then does what it can to get enough committed voters to add up to that win number.

“The most likely ones to be with us, those are the ones we talk to earliest,” says Nick Clemons, who ran Clinton’s New Hampshire campaign in 2008, “We then we have to do a little more persuasion to the undecided ones, and then depending on how things are going, maybe we go after the ones who are likely to support the other candidates based on what we know about them.”

The trick is that there’s simply not enough time or manpower to reach all of the voters needed to actually reach your win number. “You’ll probably reach about 30 percent of the people who are on your target list. The other 70 percent you’re going to have to model,” says Clemons.

Modeling, as in guessing. Campaigns take the data from their phone banks and canvasses, combined with other census data, and information like what kind of car you drive, other purchases you’ve made, and make an educated guess about how many supporters they have. If you drive a Prius and are a member of a local environmental group, the campaign might try to reach you in different ways than if you have only voted in one Democratic primary in the last 12 years.

Clemons says a good model can predict with 75 or 80 percent accuracy who will support your candidate. Though, he notes there are times when the news can instantly change the models, like the night that Howard Dean finished a distant third in the Iowa caucuses in 2004.

The Kerry campaign already had a list of voters who were leaning toward Dean, and after the caucuses they immediately got them on the phone, “We were calling Howard Dean supporters and they were coming on board with Kerry because of what happened in Iowa,” he says.

“Could be the Difference”

But what this all amounts to, according to the conventional wisdom, is basically a tiny bump:  maybe one or two percent for your candidate.

It may seem like a lot of effort for not much gain, but for politicos it’s a big deal.

“Hard to say, but if a race is close, that could be the difference,” says Mike Cuzzi, who was second-in-command for the Obama campaign in New Hampshire in 2008.

Despite the fact that this work is a critical part of modern politics it largely stays out of the headlines, except for in the rare cases like last week when data is suddenly in the spotlight.

And there's a real reason for that: it's hard to get campaigns talking openly about it: say you want to find out a campaign's win number, or how many ones and twos it had identified?

“They will never give you that information, just for the record. That is state secrets. That is the jewels to the kingdom, you know whatever analogy you want to use,” jokes Cuzzi.

And like state secrets, they are fundamental. Which is why last week, when Senator Sanders visited the opening of his campaign's 15th New Hampshire field office in Rochester, his message to his supporters was to keep at this yeoman’s work of campaigning… to keep making contact with voters.

“The way we do politics is that the most effective way to go forward is door to door, phone call to phone call, person to person,” he said, punctuating each word with a wave of his hand.

But how many people? We won’t know that… until Election Day.