Politicos Seek Data Clues for 2016 from Virginia Election

Lessons Could Be Applied in Next Round of Congressional Contests

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Democrat Terry McAuliffe and family
Democrat Terry McAuliffe and family

Outside of some local races, it may seem like little is happening on the political campaign landscape. Yet across the country and more so across the beltway, politicos are eyeing the Virginia race for governor. The reason: to find out whether the data-centric approach that helped President Obama's campaign in 2012 can work for smaller election campaigns.

Not only is Virginia in the backyard of Washington, D.C., where campaign operatives swarm, it is a key presidential election swing state. And it just so happens that its gubernatorial election, between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Ken Cuccinelli, is shaping up to be a close one.

A recent RealClearPolitics poll average showed Mr. McAuliffe ahead by 3.5 points. So, the election could help parties, advocacy groups and future campaigns envision what the 2016 presidential race might look like on a statewide level. President Obama won Virginia in 2012 by a margin of around three points.

Republican Ken Cuccinelli
Republican Ken Cuccinelli

The race for governor will help campaigns "see if what we did in thirteen or fourteen battleground areas [in 2012] can be scaled down to one state in a cost effective way," said Mike Moschella, VP of organizing at Nation Builder, a non-partisan political-campaign software firm.

The Cuccinelli for Governor camp has spent around $11,000 this year with Nation Builder on data and software services, according to Virginia State Board of Elections campaign finance reports.

"If we go through another cycle where we are continuing to add data to the profiles of voters, it certainly helps to sharpen models and gives us more data points to work with which helps the process," said Jeff Link, CEO of Analytics Media Group, a TV and digital ad targeting firm that has its tech and exec roots in the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns. "One of the big advances for the Obama campaign between 2008 and 2102 was the models became more accurate," he added.

Political campaign staff and their consultants -- often more so than corporate brand execs -- fear change, typically choosing the tried–and-true approaches to persuading voters and getting out the vote via telemarketing, door-to-door canvassing and TV ad onslaughts as opposed to emerging techniques. If the Virginia race proves to observers that the data-driven approach can work for smaller campaigns, the midterms and 2016 presidential could look a whole lot different than previous ones.

Campaign consultants might test audience buying on Hulu, ESPN Classic or HGTV, for instance, as opposed to the nightly news and discover it works in the Virginia race, said Mr. Moschella. "Then they're much more likely to do that when the entire congress is on the line [in 2014] rather than being the person who sticks his head out and gets critiqued."

The Virginia election is "extremely important since it's the first competitive statewide since the 2012 elections where commercial audience targeting methods played such a large role. The Presidentials have granted permission to statewide candidates to employ these tactics," said Peter Pasi, VP of Collective Political, the political wing of Collective, an independent, non-partisan data-driven multi-screen ad company that works with corporate and political clients. Mr. Pasi has handled digital advertising for several Republican campaigns in the past, and is a Virginia resident.

"I think anytime you have an opportunity to carry out a statewide campaign, you'd be smart to learn from that campaign and apply those learnings to the next," added Mr. Pasi.

Using this year's election to freshen and enhance current supporter databases is particularly important in Virginia, where residents don't align with a party when they register to vote, making it more difficult to determine who is likely to pull the lever for a certain candidate. "That is a little extra hurdle," said Mr. Moschella. Firms like Nation Builder layer on information to clients' core data sets, such as publicly available voter data indicating whether someone voted in a primary.

"What we'll see in 2013 is what can be institutionalized and at scale, and expanded upon," said Stu Trevelyan, CEO and president of NGP VAN, a voter-contact database and platform used by the 2012 Obama for America campaign as well as the Democratic National Committee. The DNC's contract with the company allows Democratic candidates to access its Vote Builder database, which compiles names, addresses, ages, phone numbers, voting history and other publicly available information.

Data gleaned by the Virginia campaigns this cycle will help hone better models for segmenting and targeting voters across media going forward, said Mr. Trevelyan.

Mr. McAulliffe's gubernatorial campaign spent $18,000 in April to access VAN data through the Democratic Party of Virginia. Indeed, he has a history of valuing data-driven approaches to campaigning. With Mr. McAulliffe at the helm of The DNC as chairman before the 2004 election, the organization embarked on development of its Demzilla supporter database, its answer to the GOP's Voter Vault, then seen as superior to the Democrats' antiquated system. Despite their efforts, President George W. Bush won reelection for the GOP that year.

Libertarian candidate for Virginia Governor, Robert Sarvis, has not made any expenditures on data-related services according to his State Board of Elections campaign filings.

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