RNC Data Director Touts New Voter Targeting Approach in Iowa

Party Has Three Staffers Working Closely with Microsoft

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Credit: RNC

The Republican National Committee is not knocking on doors at the last minute to get out the vote in tonight's Iowa caucus meetings; the party doesn't pick favorites in the caucuses or primaries. But the RNC has used the ramp up to today's vote to drink in as much data about voters there as possible, to test party-approved apps used by volunteers, and to gauge whether changing up its voter segmentation scheme was the right move.

The organization also hopes a new election reporting platform from Microsoft that both the Iowa Republican and Democratic parties will use is more reliable than the phone-call-based process for precinct reporting used in the past which had been prone to human error. In 2012, initial returns showed Mitt Romney, the party's eventual presidential nominee, as the victor in Iowa. It turned out Rick Santorum had 34 more votes.

"It's been beneficial being a partner of Microsoft," said RNC Chief Data Officer Jesse Kamzol in a phone call with Ad Age today, the first day of 2016 voting. According to Mr. Kamzol, the party has three staffers working closely with the company, including Patrick Stewart, current director of business intelligence at the RNC who served as data director for the Iowa GOP from 2010 till 2012.

Today's task is centered on getting the reporting right. The Microsoft system sits on the firm's Azure cloud platform that, according to the company, is designed to ensure that only authorized people report results.

The close partnership between the state parties and the global corporate giant has prompted skepticism with shades of the Diebold electronic voting machine controversy of 2004. Last week, the Bernie Sanders campaign questioned the reliability of election reporting based on a tool developed by the multinational tech behemoth. The Iowa Democratic Party dismissed concerns about any potential bias.

The GOP has also incorporated Microsoft's Power BI analytics tools into its data operation, said Mr. Kamzol. However, he stressed the party is using a variety of technologies for canvassing and data analytics including two party-approved apps from FLS Connect and Bridgetree, in conjunction with Advantage.

"We've got a couple [apps] that we're testing right now," he said, noting that the RNC requires apps must integrate with the party's API and database, and must enable dynamic scripting, meaning they can generate scripts for volunteers to use when speaking to voters based on the most recently-updated information in each voter file.

The RNC has been considered the lesser of the two mainstream parties when it comes to technological capabilities and data sophistication since 2008. But it hasn't been shy when it comes to touting what it suggests is a new strength in that arena.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus told Iowa Radio last week that the party's ground game and data operation will be "massive" during the general election in the state. Today's caucus and subsequent efforts to gather data on voters in the state will inform the party's plans for November. The GOP has used the term "vacuum" to describe its current approach to suctioning up information on voters through door-to-door canvasing and consumer data enhancements. The information is fed into the voter file, which goes to campaigns the RNC has data sharing agreements with.

One key distinction between 2016 and previous cycles: census block data. Mr. Kamzol said the party is now basing the voter segments it targets -- known as "turfs" -- on census blocks rather than precincts, which are more likely to change.

"All I've wanted to do is not have precinct targeting," said Mr. Kamzol. "We group the census blocks into groups of eight to 10 swing or low-propensity Republican voters." Swing voters are ripe for persuasion while low-propensity voters are more reliable Republican supporters who need a little motivation to go out and vote.

He suggested the census block-based approach would have put the party on a more even playing field with the Obama campaign in 2012. The GOP found that, after identifying census-block segments in Iowa, the turf targets mirrored the locations where the Obama camp had offices in 2012.

"We were fighting the same war, but on different battlefields," said Mr. Kamzol. "Data's been driving the decisions" for the changes to the turf system.

This time around, whether the party's new strategy is based on 2012's war remains to be seen.