Did data win the Virginia governor's race?

Did data win the Virginia governor's race?

Plenty of Democrats stayed up later than they’d planned on November 5th, waiting to see if Terry McAuliffe could actually pull off a victory in Virginia’s off-off-year governor’s race.

Turns out he did, but at 2.5 percent, the final margin was closer than most expected, particularly considering that McAuliffe outspent Republican Ken Cuccinelli by nearly 2-to-1. Besides money, McAuliffe had another powerful ally on his side: a political data operation with experience on Obama 2012.

As described on a post-election press call held by campaign organizers, McAuliffe’s team (which included Obama 2012 veterans now working at consulting firm Blue Labs) focused on creating data models early to identify the voters it needed to contact. Then they created the organizing and communications campaigns to persuade the right voters to go to the polls.

The first step? As Alex Burns also reported in Politico, the McAuliffe team did a series of in-depth polls and focus groups to break the electorate into voter segments. The results then drove the campaign’s outreach via field canvassing, phones and advertising.

Besides the initial voter modeling, the campaign created powerful “feedback loops” that allowed for constant updating of the campaign voter file through NGPVAN’s database tools. As volunteers and staff contacted voters via phone or in person, they collected response data that was then fed into the voter’s VAN profile (in part through the MiniVAN mobile application).

This constant flow of voter information allowed the campaign to refine its outreach over time, helping it to use resources, particularly volunteer time, efficiently. Voter contact data even let the campaign judge the effectiveness of TV ads, including those run by its opponent.

The campaign was even able to see that certain ads run by outside groups on Cuccinelli’s behalf were actually hurting the Republican, information they did not choose to share at the time.

McAuliffe and the Democratic coordinated campaign benefited from VAN data integration in other key ways, including collaborating with outside groups like Planned Parenthood and the League of Conservation Voters to schedule direct mail drops to particular voters. In addition, the campaign used an Obama-campaign-derived tool called “Airwolf” (80s TV fans rejoice!) to automate the process of connecting online supporters with on-the-ground field organizers.

Also helpful: a poll-watching system to focus Election Day GOTV operations on people who hadn’t already voted—shades of Mitt Romney’s failed “Orca” project.

With a race this close, it’s hard to argue that any one factor made the difference, of course. But 200 field staff and 13,000 volunteers knocking on the right doors the weekend before Election Day couldn’t hurt. Virginia Democrats definitely proved a sophisticated data operation can work in a state-level race.


Remember the government shutdown? The party committees sure do; it helped Democratic committees raise tons. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee raked in millions before October 1 on the threat of the shutdown, according to National Journal’s Alex Roarty, who noted “the group collected $3 million from 160,000 online donations, helping push it to the best off-year September fundraising haul in the DCCC’s history.”

An important fact about the DCCC’s fundraising: some quick math tells us that their average online supporter gave less than $20, indicating a grassroots base that the committee will be able to tap again and again in the months to come.

The Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also brought in far more than usual at this point in the cycle, banking resources for next year’s elections. October numbers weren’t in by the time this article went to press, but I’m going to bet that Dems continued to make it rain as the shutdown continued.

All that money didn’t raise itself, of course. The party committees (and left-leaning independent groups) sent a blizzard of fundraising emails—16 separate messages arrived in my inbox in just 10 hours on the day the shutdown began.

Advocacy groups got in on the act, too, firing up their lists with “open the government” actions aimed at members of Congress. Drew Bernard with ActionSprout (a service recently featured in Tech Bytes) told me some of the company’s nonprofit clients saw action rates as high as 30 percent on shutdown-related asks posted to Facebook.

It’s a classic rule of fundraising: when people are freed up, give them something to do about it. Whether or not the shutdown hurt the Republican brand in the long term, it certainly helped fill Democratic bank accounts in the short term.


Thanks to crowdfunding service CrowdTilt, it looks like Paul Ryan just got another opponent. Democrat Amardeep Kaleka recently ran an action on the site to test the waters for a 2014 Ryan challenge, and he more than hit his initial $5000 goal—look for him to have announced by the time this article goes to press. Of course, Ryan already had a Democratic challenger in the form of Rob Zerban, whom he beat in 2012.

Zerban’s no stranger to “distributed online fundraising” either, since he raised more than $1 million for his last race against Ryan through a series of drives launched on his behalf on Democratic donation site ActBlue. If Kaleka’s going to face Zerban in the primary, he’s going to need a whole lot more than $5,000 to be competitive.

Still, Kickstarter-style crowdfunding campaigns are a natural evolution in online fundraising, with small-dollar donor programs and Ron Paul-style moneybombs pointing the way toward greater and greater citizen involvement in campaign financing.

Crowdtilt has already worked with candidates in California, New York and Massachusetts. Look for them to try to play a bigger role in 2014.

This article ran in the November/December issue of Campaigns & Elections. Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, and a 15-year veteran of online politics. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at cpd@epolitics.com

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