Elections

Georgia Uses Big Data to Get Out the Vote

by | October 10, 2014

By Daniel Malloy and Kristina Torres

With Georgia polls set to open Monday for early voting, campaigns have less than a week to ramp up their "get out the vote" efforts. They're not starting cold: Leaders of the state's biggest political parties have made unprecedented use of analytics this year to pinpoint exactly which voters they need to win.

So when you next answer the door, pick up the phone or check in on Twitter, expect not only a name-check from a tablet-toting canvasser but also more than a dozen talking points tailored to your household demographics.

Say hello, in other words, to the Peach State's new campaign world of big data, which organizers said could make the difference in this year's hotly contested races for governor and the U.S. Senate. As the state grows increasingly competitive, political strategists know elections will likely be won by which party does a better job wooing voters on the margins.

"This is the largest effort we've ever had and we've started earlier than we ever had," state GOP spokesman Ryan Mahoney said.

Gone are paper walk books, simply adorned with names and voting tendencies -- identifying people who, say, always vote in the Democratic primary -- culled from public election records kept by the Secretary of State's Office.

Instead, both party pollsters and on-the-ground volunteers note various interests of the people they meet and plug that information into a database. Those data points are annotated, and a "dynamic" script is created to match campaign talking points to a person's interests.

The GOP, for instance, has created a mobile app for volunteers and employees alike to collect information. It features real-time syncing available to the party's 14 "victory offices" across Georgia, including the one in its Buckhead headquarters in Atlanta. There on a recent morning, nearly a dozen volunteers made call after call, politely introducing themselves before leaning into their pitch.

Say someone identifies himself as left-leaning but only votes sporadically and states a strong dislike for the Affordable Care Act. This "weak Democrat" then gets a call or knock on the door with a pitch tailored toward a GOP candidate's pledge to repeal that law. The embrace of technology follows last year's change in state party leadership, with staffers crediting new Chairman John Padgett with following a course set by the Republican National Committee.

The move toward such a tech-driven get-out-the-vote strategy, of course, first made waves with the 2008 election of President Barack Obama and his re-election in 2012. The Obama campaign's successful use of technology and grass-roots organizing set a standard that has finally made it to Georgia.

"The main reason we didn't do it is we knew we were going to win (the state)," state GOP Executive Director Adam Pipkin said of the party's new effort, which by Election Day will have reached out to 1.5 million voters on behalf of Republican candidates including Gov. Nathan Deal and U.S. Senate hopeful David Perdue. A number of polls show both in tight races Nov. 4, although the party's effort won't end there.

"In '14 it's going to help," Pipkin said, "but in '16 it's really going to help."

In turn, Democrats will need to push a lot of voters such as Soraya McQueen to the polls in order to challenge Republicans' statewide dominance.

McQueen, an African-American mother of two young kids who lives in the Atlanta neighborhood of Grant Park, said she does not have much time for "politics and all of that." She said she supports Democrats but votes only in presidential elections with one exception: She recalls one time voting in a school board race when she knew the candidate.

On a recent Sunday McQueen got a knock on her door from Alex Jordan, a field organizer for the coordinated Democratic campaign. She was on a list of sporadic Democratic voters carefully culled from months of research and targeting.

Jordan and volunteer Chloe Prendergast -- a 17-year-old high school student who can't even vote herself -- crisscrossed Grant Park looking for their targets, not even bothering to give their pitch to others if the voter on their list was not home.

Jordan assured McQueen that her vote was important to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jason Carter and Senate candidate Michelle Nunn, and he delivered a couple of bullet points on their platforms. For Nunn, it's improving schools, creating jobs and raising the minimum wage. For Carter, it's restoring "honesty and integrity" to state government. McQueen signed a pledge to vote early, and she will get another text message reminder when early voting begins Monday.

McQueen recalled seeing Nunn on television but did not know much about the candidates. She vowed to do more research. Here, then, is where the new strategies meet the old.

A slew of Democratic-allied groups have been seeking to register new voters, mostly young people and racial minorities. The NAACP, the Urban League and some African-American churches have mounted registration drives, and a number of religious leaders have supported a push in at least six counties to hold early voting on at least one Sunday before Nov. 4.

Then there is the New Georgia Project, a Democratic-backed group founded by state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams of Atlanta, which made national headlines after Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp announced an investigation involving the group's registration efforts.

So far, 50 voter registration applications out of more than 85,000 submitted by the group are forgeries, according to investigators, who have also said they have no evidence of conspiracy by the group's leaders. The forged applications seem to be the individual work of canvassers paid by the group during its registration drive, investigators have said.

Tharon Johnson, a Democratic strategist who is advising the coordinated campaign, said the fracas has ignited both parties' bases, which in turn will also likely have an impact on getting people to the polls.

Johnson, Obama's 2012 campaign director in the South, said the New Georgia Project allegations brought back a theme that he saw in Florida two years ago, where Democrats got fired up when Republicans sought to impose restrictions on voting.

"It nationalized the two races here in Georgia because it reflected a theme from the Republicans, when Democrats would tell base voters: 'They don't want you to vote. They want to suppress your vote,' " Johnson said.

(c)2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)

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