Voter information collected by the Republican and Democratic Parties is often merged with databases run by AOL, Yahoo, and Microsoft to create targeted campaigns. Here's a look at how it's done.
Political advertisers use all sorts of data to reach specific groups of voters through Web ads. But voter file data isn't what typically comes to mind. Most political campaign insiders would like to keep it that way.
People familiar with voter file-based ad targeting say Yahoo, AOL, and MSN have all done it. However, while most online politicos have few if any qualms about privacy concerns related to using voter information for Web ad targeting (the info is all publicly available), those publisher partners seem to recognize the potential for user backlash.
Secretaries of state allow public access to voter registration data, which typically includes name, address, date of birth, political party affiliation, and indicates the elections in which a voter cast a ballot. However, the national parties both pool that information from all states, regularly update it, and append it with commercially available lifestyle data such as household income or shopping history.
Both the Republican and Democratic parties have used their massive national voter databases to target specific people through Web ads.
The RNC's Experiment
In September 2007, the Republican National Committee sent its nationwide voter registration database to a third party data company. That firm matched the RNC's database to the registration databases of AOL, MSN, and Yahoo, the goal being to create a list of people to target with ads on those sites. The parties involved stress that the end result was non personally-identifiable data, essentially a set of audience segments, similar to the audience segments used in behavioral ad targeting.
"We never see the client file and they never see our file," said a publisher-side source. "All we get back [from the third party data matching firm] is code."
The committee ended up with a list of over 40 million voters, flagged by party affiliation, who they could potentially hit with ads on those three portals. It was an exciting prospect. "We were kind of full of ourselves that we had done that," said an RNC insider familiar with the project. "Then we started running advertising against the matches."
It was only the start of an ongoing experiment of which neither party really knows the value yet. In the RNC's case, the first test came with Bobby Jindal's 2007 campaign for governor of Louisiana. "This was a case study for the committee to validate that the Internet can successfully turn out voters," said the source, who said the RNC believes they delivered thousands of votes for Jindal through the ad effort.
According to the source, 76 percent of the users who interacted with the RNC ads by providing their zip code to find the nearest polling place, for instance -- voted absentee or in-person. Though it's near-impossible to verify whether the ads were the sole reason someone voted, the committee could make an educated guess by matching voting logs from Louisiana's secretary of state against data collected through the ads. Jindal was elected in October 2007.
"Here's one more touch-point, and the difference between this and all the others is there's no data capture in any other medium to validate that [medium] was the impetus for them to vote," said the source. While online advertising is still used by political advertisers mainly for fundraising, this mission to measure the campaign's effect on actual voting behavior indicates some think it could have a far more significant impact.
The RNC also employed the tactic during the '08 elections in support of Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss, U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert of Washington, and California's Yes on 8 campaign supporting the state's proposition outlawing same-sex marriage. They were all winning campaigns.
In fact, the Yes on 8 effort, handled by Schubert Flint Public Affairs and prominent Republican digital shop Connell Donatelli, won a slew of awards from the Association of Political and Public Affairs Professionals for the online elements of the campaign. In its award nomination document, Connell Donatelli (which ran John McCain's 2008 digital campaign) put it this way: "For several months, we quietly served online ads against the RNC's voter file to registered Republicans, Independents, and Democrats (55+)."
Voter file-based ad targeting was also used during the 2004 presidential elections. A source familiar with the Republican campaign that handled the ad effort said voter file-targeted ads focusing on issues like education and national security ran on portals in the last few weeks leading to the '04 election.
While some get excited about the potential impact of voter file-based ad targeting, people from the right and left worry that broadcasting the practice could clue in their opponents to a valuable tactic.
"They're going to talk it up in their circles, but there are not going to be white papers published," said a source who's dealt with the publisher-side of voter file ad targeting. Like some others interviewed for this story, the source spoke on condition of anonymity, an indication of the topic's sensitivity. "These are the kinds of things that I think smart people would keep to themselves," one digital political consultant told ClickZ News regarding the issue during the 2006 midterm election season.
A Legal Nightmare
Typically, all three parties -- advertiser or agency, publisher, and a data matching firm such as Axciom or InfoUSA -- enter a contractual agreement. The agreement, according to Yahoo Senior Director of North American Ad Products David Kopp, requires that the third party data firm destroy the matched data. One reason the data matching is conducted by a third firm is to prevent the publisher and advertiser from having access to the other's information, "to keep it blind to anyone in the equation," Kopp said.
Once the data match is complete, Yahoo and the other portals get back what is essentially an audience segment consisting of their own users. "Once a segment is defined it's just like any other segment," said Kopp. So, once a matched segment is on file, there's really no reason for the publisher -- be it Yahoo, AOL, or MSN -- to get rid of it. He said Yahoo ran voter file-based ads on behalf of "at least a couple" political advertisers during the '08 election season. Yahoo and other large sites have run ads for corporate brands using matched advertiser-supplied data for years.
In the RNC's case, Connell Donatelli contracted with the publishers and a data matcher. The RNC, a client of the consulting firm, allows it to use its voter file to run ads for the committee, as well as Republican candidate and conservative issue campaigns. According to sources, Connell Donatelli is the only company that's been awarded that privilege.
Getting all the legal i's dotted and t's crossed can take weeks. One digital ad consultant who went through the process for Barack Obama's campaign called it "a nightmare."
"They tend to be projects that take a long time and a fair amount of effort," Kopp said. Indeed, there's a reason why the two national parties have done this when smaller political groups have not. The only way it's worth the time and money is if the process involves millions of records. By the time non-matches are filtered out, the original voter list dwindles. Also, voters must have logged in recently to the Web site delivering the ads to be located by the ad targeting system.
Only the Beginning
"The match rates are not super great," said the Obama camp insider. Obama for America used voter file matching to target online ads to Democrats in 10 battleground states. But, the campaign wanted only to reach the Democrats who were less likely to vote, determined by how regularly they voted in past elections. After all, why spend ad dollars to reach people who reliably vote Democrat and always vote? Consider this: If the campaign originally matched 40 million voters, that database might be reduced to 10 million once non-battleground states were weeded out. Shaving it down further to include only Democrats might bring it to 5 million, and then possibly half that once frequent voters were stripped away.
The presidential campaign partnered with Catalist, a data firm serving progressive campaigns and organizations such as MoveOn, Planned Parenthood, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Some say Catalist -- founded by Clinton White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes -- is essentially the Democratic Party's voter file warehouse. Catalist did not return multiple calls from ClickZ requesting comment for this story.
Despite the lackluster experience described by the Obama campaigner, most say use of voter file matched ad targeting will stick around. Political advertisers "understand voter files, so while they may not understand all the technology...they like being able to target via voter files," said one source. Another predicted the practice will have a more significant impact when it's applied to mobile ad campaigns. If privacy concerns can be assuaged, campaigns could target specific voters in close proximity to a candidate's speaking appearance, for instance.
Noted the source, "That starts to get pretty profound."
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Kate Kaye was Managing Editor at ClickZ News until October 2012. As a daily reporter and editor for the original news source, she covered beats including digital political campaigns and government regulation of the online ad industry. Kate is the author of Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media, the only book focused on the paid digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate created ClickZ's Politics & Advocacy section, and is the primary contributor to the one-of-a-kind section. She began reporting on the interactive ad industry in 1999 and has spoken at several events and in interviews for television, radio, print, and digital media outlets. You can follow Kate on Twitter at @LowbrowKate.
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