It seems the 2016 election cycle's data story has already been written. There is once again a gaping innovation chasm between the right and left as Hillary Clinton picks up where Barack Obama left off and the Donald Trump camp just doesn't seem all that interested.
But there is another story being told. One just has to look outside the presidential campaigns, down the ballot and to the super PACs.
From the pro-Clinton powerhouse Priorities USA to the pro-Republican Congressional Leadership Fund, outside organizations on both sides have invested in data services this cycle.
Analyzing voter data to make smarter media buys, segment voters and target messages for ads, emails, direct mail, phone calls and door-to-door canvassing has become the new normal for most Democratic campaigns and organizations. The Clinton camp is still building out its digital and data staff in state and local offices, adding to the 80-or-so people it has on board today. That means there will be yet another new crop of experienced data practitioners who, after November, will join the left's startups, launch their own, or lead data teams for PACs, advocacy groups and tomorrow's campaigns for the party.
Nearly all of the Democratic and left-leaning PACs and advocacy groups engaged in this election are using data services, said Tom Bonier,
CEO of Democratic data firm TargetSmart Communications. "I would be shocked if we could come up with one of those that hasn't invested in data and analytics," he said, adding, "We are working with far more of these outside groups, IEs [independent expenditure groups], super PACs, and so on and so forth than we have in past elections going back to 2012 and 2014."
Neither the Clinton nor Trump campaigns -- or the people handling data for them -- would comment for this story.
Not that the Trump campaign would have very much to talk about. Despite promises from the Republican National Committee in 2013 to establish "a new culture driven by data, technology, analytics, and personal contact," and a reported investment of $100 million since 2012 toward that goal, there is an apparent lack of interest in analytics within the Trump campaign. The campaign does have a data director, Witold Chrabaszcz, who formerly worked for the RNC, but it has invested a relatively meager amount -- under $500,000, according to Federal Election Committee reports -- with data firms including L2 and Cambridge Analytica.
Worse, the Trump camp is a black box to most entrenched Republican data practitioners and entrepreneurs, some of whom say they wouldn't work with the campaign even if asked.
That and the overall lack of data investment by the top GOP campaign could have an adverse trickle-down effect.
Talent Goes Down-ballot
"We could be losing people," said Alex Lundry, co-founder of Republican data firm Deep Root Analytics, who ran the data team for Jeb Bush's primary campaign and Mitt Romney's 2012 campaign. "There's a huge opportunity with presidential campaigns to hire, train and develop a whole new generation of talent."
But with Trump falling behind in the data game, "you have a situation this cycle where a lot of talent and the culture, the people who are culturally behind an analytics campaign … have migrated into super PACs, into committees, into the down-ballot races," said Mr. Lundry.
Five of the 10 people Mr. Lundry had on staff with the Bush primary campaign were new to the GOP data world and have since been "firmly integrated into the Republican analytics ecosystem."
During primary season, Jeb Bush super PAC Right to Rise spent around $3 million with GOP analytics firms Digital Core Campaign and Deep Root Analytics. Spending on data-related services is "expected for any organization that is targeting voters," Paul Lindsay, spokesman for Right to Rise, told Ad Age last September. "It makes sense to have good investments in data so we know who we're reaching out to."
Throughout the general election, pro-Trump group Great America PAC has run TV ads prompting people to dial 1-800 numbers in the hopes of uncovering potential Trump supporters who might not normally vote or show up in lists of likely voters. "As a result, Great America PAC has built a tremendous data file," said Dan Backer, general counsel and treasurer of Great America PAC, in August. As a "hybrid" PAC, the group is allowed to pass along donations and supporter data to the Trump campaign, and is using the information itself to create "universes of look-alikes," to expand its voter targets to include people with characteristics similar to its supporters.
Connecting Congressional Dots
Congressional Leadership Fund, which aims to help elect Republicans to the House, is working with two GOP data firms -- Optimus and Deep Root Analytics -- to determine how best to target key voter segments in 15 states. Investing in data services "really matters in a congressional district probably more than it does in any other kind of race," CLF President Mike Shields said in September. The group works with GOP voter data provider Data Trust and incorporates voter scores and information it gathers back into that database, which can be used by other right-leaning organizations.
The people donating money to PACs are driving the interest in data as well. They're demanding that organizations be efficient with their dollars, said Mr. Lundry. And data efforts apparently make them feel their money is being spent wisely. He noted that a Deep Root super PAC client that used the firm for just one race in 2014 is using the company's services for 10 races this election season, and as a result spending more money.
All signs point to growth in the use of analytics services among super PACs on the left, too. For instance, FEC reports show big-spending groups Priorities USA and NextGen Climate have purchased data and analytics services since primary season from Civis Analytics, the firm founded by Dan Wagner, the 2012 Obama campaign's chief analytics officer. Senate Majority PAC is also working with Civis in addition to TargetSmart.
"We certainly have more Super PAC clients this time around than previously," said John Hagner, partner at Democratic analytics firm Clarity Campaign Lab. As with the Clinton campaign itself, Mr. Hagner said outside groups supporting the Democratic candidate have become more sophisticated in their application of data and analytics.
One Democratic data exec who wished to remain anonymous said outside groups have been at the cutting edge because they can build on work done during previous election cycles.
The 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns were a wellspring of analytics education that created a sea of talent on the Democratic side. As the unnamed data exec put it, the 70-or-so data people whose jobs ended after the 2012 election moved on to data firms and outside organizations to replicate and improve on innovations produced within the campaign. The fact that PACs and organizations on the left such as Emily's List and NextGen Climate have data and analytics staff is a direct result of that.
The Clinton data team is led by Elan Kriegel, co-founder of Democratic data firm BlueLabs. While it's difficult to know many details about how Mr. Kriegel's team operates, a Democrat speaking on condition of anonymity suggested that the analytics team works in conjunction with most other campaign departments, helping determine what cities to visit, or whether TV or digital media is best for reaching a certain audience. "It's a much harder question than previous cycles because the tactics aren't new," he said.
Don't count the Trump camp completely out. In August it flooded Facebook with ad variations aimed at various targets. And according to cable TV ad tracker NCC Media, in early September it placed TV buys on around 40 cable networks in Virginia, many of them on nontraditional channels, indicating the use of TV-viewing data to find less-expensive channels and shows that targeted voters are watching.