How data is shaping local election campaigns

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It was an on-the-spot decision that helped Cause + Effect Strategy carve a niche in political campaigns, one that President John Loury believes is unique to the business intelligence firm. 

In 2015, the same year the company began operations, Loury attended a food truck rodeo at the Rochester Public Market. Former Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo and her reelection campaign workers were also in attendance.

Loury had previous relationships with Dinolfo family members from growing up in Irondequoit. 

John Loury

“I had known them for many years, but never said anything about the company or about what we did. I managed to rattle off a quick elevator speech to her. She said, ‘Great! Let’s link up,’” he recalls. “It’s how we got our feet wet. Or maybe thrown into the deep end and then forced to learn how to swim, depending on how you look at it.

“It was a split-second decision, but using data to market better, that’s always been our principle. How do we use the data from any kind of campaign to make better decisions, optimize it, and buy better media?”

Since helping market the 2015 Dinolfo campaign to voters, CE Strategy has gone on to assist in campaigns for mayor, sheriff, and county clerk. The company, which expects to open its new downtown headquarters Thursday, along with marketing also offers services based around supply chain, operations, fundraising, and human capital management. 

CE Strategy is nonpartisan and has worked with both sides of the aisle to target voters using data-collection techniques. Its approach represents a new but growing shift in the importance of data in local elections.

“(Campaigns are) an evolving field and always need to adapt their tactics to fit the times,” says a veteran of local political campaigns, who requested to remain anonymous. “Online data is the new oil for campaigns.”

One of the techniques CE Strategy uses is internet protocol address tracking. IP addresses are unique identifiers given to any device connecting to the internet and can be monitored for information such as clicks, likes, comments, responses, visits or views of digital content. Those IP addresses can then be converted to clustered geographic data, showing where devices are located, which is legal.

From there, CE Strategy can determine what issues are resonating with users, what drives them as a voter, and if making changes to messaging or media buys makes sense for the campaign on a case-by-case basis. At the end of the process, voter data are like “baseball cards,” Loury says, but instead of home runs or stolen bases, voters react to political affiliations and content.

“If someone’s on the fence but they care about an issue, those are also people we think we can make a difference with by showing them more content or more about a candidate’s stance so that it would resonate with them,” Loury says. “The purpose was to get an understanding, on a one-to-one level, of what the issues that matter to people were and then to serve up additional content where their interests are.” 

CE Strategy’s technique is different from companies like Google or Facebook, which use cookies to track user activity, something Loury’s team determined was “shaky” from a data verification standpoint.

One election where Loury says CE Strategy was able to fully implement this system was during former Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren’s 2017 primary campaign. The mayor’s team was receptive to the entire process and took their directional insight when it came to altering messaging and advertising buys.

For example, CE Strategy could determine which of Warren’s “4 Pillars” – job creation, better schools, safer streets, and economic revitalization – resonated with voters to target them with more messaging or see their reaction to other platform approaches.

Similarly, leading up to the primary contest, Warren’s team spent very little money on television ads compared to her competition, based on CE Strategy’s advice to focus on social, digital and radio instead.

“James Sheppard, in the last month of that primary, spent somewhere around $5,000 a day on TV, ” says Loury. “We spent zero.”

“Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, the nightly news–those are still incredibly fertile grounds to appeal to a certain segment of voters. But that’s expensive. Plenty of older folks who watch those programs also have Facebook accounts now and there’s no time dependency on that,” says the campaign veteran who declined to be identified, who sees any type of advertising as an extension of pushing the conversation between candidate and voter forward.

Another element of data collection for local elections is keeping data past a single campaign. Loury describes elections as like a circus, where a tent is constructed quickly and then dismantled when the event is over. Campaign staff collect a wealth of data through polling, candidate meet and greets, or CE Strategy’s IP tracking, but rarely keep it beyond that period.

This is likely due to turnover of staff, who are mostly volunteers, a disinterest in maintaining historical reams of data or an overreliance on traditional techniques, Loury says. He views it as a mistake.

“Going with a TV media buy of $2,000 because, ‘Well, I don’t know, it’s what we did last year,’ for example, is not a good plan,” Loury says. “You should focus on actually understanding where your dollars go in that marketing and where you made an impact before. There are such opportunities for data to help with this too nowadays.”

Although there is still hesitancy among some, Loury is encouraged by how data’s importance has already changed over the years.

“There’s stages to adoption of data, right? There’s ‘Data? What’s that? I don’t want anything to do with that, that’s scary.’ Then it’s, ‘Data is cool.’ Then it’s, ‘I actually want to learn about data’ to ‘I’d like to try and use data,’ and finally it’s truly data-driven approaches,” Loury says. “We haven’t reached that point yet with political campaigns, but it’s definitely progressing along those lines.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

2 thoughts on “How data is shaping local election campaigns

  1. What should drive local election campaigns is results. Promises made and kept? The people in those position get reelected. If one is not very happy with the political efforts of a particular politician/Party,….vote for the other individual/Party. If they didn’t perform as promised and or didn’t follow through on the concerns of the constituents, which they campaigned on,… Instead the politician “manages” the voter with things or strategies like redistricting. In the end, did the person voted in do the job or did they fail and on what level. The rest is ‘sleight of hand’.

  2. It’s simple yet complex. We are not in great shape. Not NYS and not the nation.
    So what does one do in that case with the facts clearly on display? You vote in the same people. The same Party. Why? Because you hate Trump. Huh,…does that even make sense? It only makes sense in the political world.

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