Media coverage of political campaigns nowadays tends to focus on things like social media, tech-savvy organizing and voter micro-targeting popularized by Obama campaign quants. But those bright, shiny objects distract from the mundane, yet proven tradition of donor-list rental.
In politics, as in business, you have to spend money to make money. And the renting of donor lists is one of the best ways to do that. In fact, contact lists gathered by the Obama for America and Romney for President campaigns are among the largest political lists around today, and they're essentially for sale.
A perusal of Federal Election Commission reports turns up rentals of all sorts by political campaigns and advocacy groups. Sign an online petition supporting gun rights lately? Attend a campaign event? Donate to a nonprofit or political candidate? You're on one or more lists somewhere as a result.
Those who work in political direct marketing swear by the notion that if someone has a history of donating -- to any organization or cause -- that donation is the greatest predictor he will open his wallet again.
"That's the usefulness of renting lists," said Alex Lundry, senior VP and chief data scientist at GOP data analytics firm TargetPoint Consulting and former director of data science for the 2012 Romney for President campaign.
A primary convention
List rental is popular during primary season when lesser-known candidates vie for campaign donations, mostly to spend towards advertising to build name recognition and, in turn, hopefully generate more donations to repeat the cycle. If a supporter gave recently -- say in the last month to three months -- she's tagged with the "hotline donor" label.
But this is key: The actual contact data in the lists is never handed over to the renter. Political list-renters pay only for the ability to reach people on the list through email or direct mail. In other words, Political Campaign A buys access to the list from Campaign B. Then Political Campaign A crafts its communications which are then routed through Campaign B (or an outside vendor) without Campaign A getting its hands on contact data.
"They're renting the ability to communicate directly to these people. You're not giving the names over; we would never give them over," said Zac Moffatt, co-founder of Targeted Victory and digital director for the Romney 2012 campaign. Mr. Moffatt said he would not discuss the financial details of his firm's relationship with the former Romney campaign in relation to the list rentals.
What the renters do get is the list data associated with people who took some sort of action after being sent a direct mail piece or email. In the example above, if a recipient responds to Campaign A's communication, by signing up or donating, then Campaign A will have the recipient's data as well -- thus beginning to build its own list.
When it got its start, for example, the Romney 2012 camp rented lots of lists from conservative organizations and erected its own supporter database on that foundation.
The Romney list includes only people who opted-in through some form of action, whether it be a donation or not.
The National Republican Congressional Committee this year has spent just under $200,000 to rent the Romney 2012 list from Targeted Victory, the consultancy that ran Romney's digital campaign.
That list encompasses nearly 2 million names attached to email addresses and other data that is sold at variable rates based on how granular or segmented the information is. Renters can reach a list of donors in Ohio only, or a list of people who bought logo-laden merch in the Romney campaign store online. It's not clear from FEC reports how much renters pay per-name or whether payments are fees for regular access to list or for one-time contracts.
The Democratic National Committee gets the Obama for America list on an in-kind basis, meaning the DNC doesn't pay for it. However, FEC requires organizations to report the value of goods and services provided in-kind. This year's DNC filings show the Obama for America list valued at $190,909 per month.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rented the Obama for America list twice in April, services valued at $135,000, according to an FEC report. Organizing for Action, a non-campaign entity established to enable the Obama people to use the President's campaign data to advocate for his agenda while abiding by FEC rules, also rents the Obama for America list, according to a Democratic party insider who asked not to be named in this story.
"There are many different lists cut many different ways -- email, fundraising, volunteer and originating from the Obama campaign or the DNC or a state party," said a different person who asked to be referred to as "a senior operative on the left." The operative added, "It's a complicated mess."
To be fair, the data offerings on the right are also considered complex and disorderly by insiders.
The viability of the data is a constant concern, also. Over time, contact information becomes obsolete, eroding the potency of any campaign using a rented list. Targeted Victory has a team of people tasked with cleaning and managing the Romney list.
That political website rents you, too
While political groups are major providers of donor and supporter data, publishers -- with pools of print and email subscriber information indicating strong political leanings and interests in specific causes -- are no slouches in the list-rental department. On the left, The Nation Co., publisher of The Nation, and DailyKos.com publisher Kos Media, rented lists to the DCCC this year; the Kos list went for $15,536.50 in February while access to The Nation's list in March was valued at around $11,000.
Before reading an article deeming Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican a "conspiracy theorist," DailyKos visitors on Thursday were greeted with a pop-up petition: "Sign the petition from Daily Kos and House Majority PAC to John Boehner: Stop playing dumb. Act now on climate change." Like pretty much every other online petition, emails of signees are dumped into a list that might be segmented as a group of people who care about climate change or environmental issues and used later for email campaigns.
"By signing this petition you will receive periodic updates on offers and activism opportunities from Daily Kos and House Majority PAC," noted a petition disclaimer.
On the right, publishers such as Newsmax and Breitbart send emails to subscribers on behalf of political fundraisers and list builders -- as well as advertisers that could be considered not-so-relevant. Direct-marketing mailing list service NextMark categorizes the Breitbart list as a Conservative, Republican and Tea Party email list that has had "proven success" promoting "Emergency Preparedness," "Gold/Silver Purchases, and "Natural Health Products and Information" offers.
Some list renters are more discriminating than others when it comes to clientele. "Our focus has been helping Republican and conservative candidates and causes. We've turned down a majority of the marketing groups that have requested to use the list," said Mr. Moffatt regarding Romney list rentals.
Teaching old data new tricks
Sometimes list renters do apply data-analytics techniques in the hopes of acquiring new supporters. They might take a list of registered voters (publicly available data compiled by party organizations and vendors serving the political market), and have a rented list matched to the voter list to find people with similar characteristics who have not donated.
"You can build predictive models of likelihood to be a donor using your list of donors and lists of people who have not donated to you," said Mr. Lundry. However, he said, "That will never perform as strongly as just going out and renting a list of people who have given before to another campaign."
Rented lists are getting some more modern analytics treatment, said Mr. Lundry. "What campaigns are getting better about is tracking where people are coming in from…and therefore knowing where to go back to for more names or list refreshes."