Post Election, Campaigns Try to Link Targeted Ads to Actual Votes

Here's How Political Groups Know When Digital Ads Drove Voters to the Polls

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Political campaigns, parties and consulting firms are digging through the rubble of the midterm elections to see what did and didn't work. Of particular interest: figuring out if the people they targeted with digital ads actually voted.

"Going into Election Day, we were analyzing more than 13 million voters who had voted early in targeted states," said Michael Beach, co-founder of Targeted Victory, a Republican digital consulting firm that handles voter-targeted advertising, among other digital work, for clients including the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Karl Rove-affiliated Super PAC American Crossroads.

Such work has been attempted as far back as 2007. That year, online evangelists in the Republican National Committee set out to prove that the digital ads aimed directly at people in the party's voter file drove them to vote in the Louisiana gubernatorial election won by current Governor Bobby Jindal, a Republican. But the tools at the time were limited.

"We are going to do persuasion analysis and turnout analysis in a way that wasn't technically possible two years ago," Mr. Beach said.

Betsy Hoover, partner at 270 Strategies, a digital firm that works with groups on the left, said her firm will also use election data to measure the impact of digital efforts on voter turnout. Those with large data sets, such as party committees and consulting firms that worked with several political campaigns this cycle, are most likely to dig into the election data for this purpose. Ultimately, they want to find out how well their data models projected digital efforts' effectiveness in persuading voters or driving turnout.

Because of the sensitive and proprietary nature of measuring the impact of ads on votes, people interviewed for this story were reluctant to share many details of how these campaign-measurement studies will be performed.

Secretaries of state across the country will release complete election data from the midterms over the next few months. That publicly-available information is invaluable to political campaigns looking to determine who is most likely to vote Democrat or Republican, vote for a particular candidate, and who probably won't vote at all. The public election data doesn't show who people voted for, but it does show if someone voted in a specific election, and depending on the state, includes party affiliation and other relevant information.

"Knowing who voted is the single most valuable piece of election information that exists," said Ethan Roeder, executive director of the New Organizing Institute, a group that educates progressives about using digital media and data analysis for grassroots political operations. Election data, he continued, "allows campaigns to measure the real world impact of their turnout programs both on the ground and online and make highly accurate predictions about who is likely to vote in future elections."

To be sure, many digital efforts -- video ads shown to people in a given state or behavioral display ads, for instance -- can't be easily linked to a voter. However, if a voter has downloaded an app or shared campaign-related content on Facebook or Twitter, campaigns can sometimes gather contact information or data showing that a voter took an action such as sharing a virtual "I voted" sticker or searching for her polling place. These are the data keys that can connect election data about who voted to campaign data showing who was targeted.

The basic process used when the GOP ran pro-Jindal ads to target specific voters online is still common. Many campaigns during the 2014 election cycle linked their voter data to registration data on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, allowing them to target specific audiences. Often, it's an email address that connects the two data sets.

"Ideally you have a couple different data points," to match, said Ms. Hoover, adding that with custom audience targeting, "we have a much better sense of who did we target and how does that impact what they did on Tuesday."

"We have a relatively good idea of how legacy voter outreach performed," said Teddy Goff, former director of digital on the Obama 2012 campaign and partner at Precision Strategies, a corporate consulting firm. Yet, even the most well-calibrated gauge can only do so much, he suggested. "Do you ever really, really know what it is that makes someone change their vote?"

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