Matt Edson opened his front door to a couple of local college students and unknowingly became one of millions of Americans whose thoughts are being tracked by rich business people and political campaigns who hope to control the nation’s government.
The 33-year-old man lives in Green, an Akron suburb neither too liberal nor too conservative. It is just right, in fact, for finding swing voters.
He cracked his front door on a sunny afternoon in late April as his dog pushed between his knees to get a peek at the visitors. Edson told the two College Republicans from Kent State that he hadn’t settled on Republican Rob Portman or Democrat Ted Strickland for U.S. Senate this fall.
If he had chosen Strickland, the conversation would have ended. But Portman’s campaign, with help from thousands of door-knocking students, is seeking undecided voters and ticket-splitters (those rare ballot-casters who might pick a Democrat for president but a Republican for senate.)
Edson fit the bill, so the solicitors continued with their script. They asked him to pick one concern from a short list central to Portman’s campaign. For each issue there’s a political ad. To send out the right ad at the right time to the right voter, the Portman campaign needed only to hear Edson say “the economy.”
The students thumbed Edson’s answers into a smart phone app. And, as the software told them which door to knock on next and which to avoid, it added the man from Green to 1.9 million other Ohioans whose private preferences could be used to influence the outcome of an election.
Getting to know you
Campaigning in 2016 has gotten quite intimate.
Even before the knock on the door, the campaign may know voters’ habits, including the shows they watch, where they shop, magazines they read and the cars in the garage.
Software developers like i360, the company that designed the app used by Portman volunteers, load public information from voter registries into databases. Information harvested from face-to-face or over-the-phone interactions is added to an increasingly comprehensive profile of Ohioans.
Who’s funding this data-gathering bonanza? Think of billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. The brothers are among America’s wealthiest who have taken control of the campaign process, out-raising and out-spending the traditional campaigns in critical races to pick their own candidates.
Politico discovered that Freedom Partners — the Koch’s association of wealthy investors — pumped $50 million into the development of i360.
The companies that control the data then help campaigns place targeted ads on popular online platforms such as Facebook. Portman’s campaign figures 80 percent of the 1.9 million voters it’s contacted can be found online.
The mass of data on each voter is fueling a surge in micro-targeting, which media analyst Borrell Associates predicts will help online advertising surpass $1 billion this election cycle, 500 percent more than the last.
Started with Obama
“I think [Barack] Obama really set the stage for all this,” Portman spokesperson Michawn Rich said of the technological shift in campaigning.
“If someone changes the game, you have to keep up,” she added, noting that Portman’s campaign is among the first to use Instagram and Snapchat to reach voters.
Four years ago while volunteering for Republican Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada, Rich used reams of paper and a clipboard to do what the two volunteers in Green do now with little more than free time, a smart phone and dedication (incentives like trips to Washington D.C. and campaign apparel help, too).
Walking away from Edson’s home, Rich speculated on how important it is to know that a voter cares most about the economy. Perhaps Edson will receive a reminder that Ohio lost 350,000 jobs during the Great Recession — when Strickland was governor.
Doctor in the house
Standing side-by-side with their arms folded in front, Jennifer Hutchinson, 21, and Jake Tabler, 19, patiently waited on another front porch in Edson’s neighborhood.
The suburban development of colonial homes has some so new they don’t appear on Google. But the app in Tabler’s hand — purchased from i360, a Baltimore-based data company — not only knows they exist, but knows who lives in them.
At one house, the app informs Tabler that he could address the man who should answer the door as “Dr.”
Tabler, thinking how he would react if a stranger on his front porch greeted him by name, decides to introduce himself and not let on too much. He and Hutchinson stick to the scripted questions, instead.
Rounding the corner, Tabler and Hutchinson hear an electric saw revving as the next couple on the list do some spring clean-up in the front yard. They tell the app that the couple wasn’t home. “We don’t want to be rude and intrude on what they’re doing,” Tabler said.
As they continue down the street, a woman unloading groceries from a van says the neighbors aren’t home. Tabler and Hutchinson thank the woman, but they wouldn’t have visited that home anyway.
i360 did not respond to Beacon Journal requests to discuss this story.
The company was created by a technologist working on John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, a year when Democrats blistered Republicans all the way down the ticket.
Obama’s grassroots campaign collected massive amounts of voter information. Voter files, as the databases are known, were controlled by the political parties then.
The movement to digitize the information began a decade ago when then Democratic national chairman Howard Dean had each state party maintain and make available their voter files. The parties, as they do today, would own the data.
Micro-targeting, in turn, involves sharing data with several private companies.
One firm — for most Democrats it’s NGP VAN (Voter Activation Network) and for some Republicans its i360 — provides the software to update the vote file, seamlessly. Third-party data consultancy companies crunch the numbers to build a digital model of, say, how the known Ted Strickland supporter behaves online and in the real world. That allows the campaign to identify prototypical Strickland supporters and make sure they’re voting.
But with Republican’s foundering in 2008, the Koch’s got behind i360, one of many private tech firms that conservatives use (as opposed to Democrats who share the same database). By uploading the wishes and behaviors of Ohioans, Portman canvassers have contributed to the billionaire Koch brothers control of American politics. i360, after all, was built to track 250 million voters, or nearly every last one in America.
Current and former presidential candidates Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and John Kasich have used the program this election, according to expenditure statements filed with the Federal Elections Commission.
But not Donald Trump, who Ohio Republicans worry will give Democrats the White House and hurt down-ticket races. Trump was barred from using i360 after a testy exchange last year with the Koch brothers.
Meanwhile, the brothers network of donors has contributed $3.3 million of the nearly $4 million in payments to i360, nearly all of it to attack a single candidate: Ted Strickland.
In a video entitled “The Data is the Difference,” i360 explains its business model, which touts “inventing the future” of campaigning and, perhaps, public opinion.
“But why do they knock on your door and not your neighbors?” the video’s narrator asks. “Beneath the surface there are people — no, not just people — data scientists, analysts and coders drawing together all the little invisible strands that tie and bind us together.”
That’s the technology guiding students from KSU, Akron, Oxford, Millersburg, Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati, according to federal campaign finance reports detailing expenses reimbursed by Portman.
Campaign manager Corry Bliss said they have contacted 1.9 million Ohioans — more than half of the Republican turnout in the March primary.
The campaign is less concerned with turning liberals into conservatives than it is in swaying undecided voters and energizing its base. “We’re only talking to ticket-splitters, swing voters,” Bliss said. “That’s the swing. That’s the fight. That’s the battleground.”
Now that they know who needs to see which political ad and whether to reach that person on the internet or between TV shows, the campaign has reserved $14 million in cable commercial time and $1 million to unleash an arsenal of online ads, each tailored to a specific community or issue.
It’s a big investment; $15 million would nearly deplete Portman’s campaign coffers, if the bill were to be paid today. But the contract allows the campaign to get ad time at a discounted rate, kind of like purchasing plane tickets or booking vacations before demand for them peaks and bumps up pricing.
In Ohio, where the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also has reserved $10 million in ad time to attack Portman, peak time will be October and November as presidential campaigns, Super PACs and two candidates for U.S. Senate flood the airwaves with persuasive, targeted messaging.