Voter Data, While Valuable, Is Surprisingly Cheap

Of all the lessons that we learned from the 2008 presidential election, which we will certainly be reliving for the next 70 days, the most surprising to me was that voters will give up their data to campaigns for next to nothing. The same generation of tech-savvy individuals who fought for net neutrality and against Sony's Digital Rights Management were as anxious to give up their goods as the recording secretary of the chess club on prom night. Forget the websites. Forget the e-mails blasts. Forget the podcasts. This is the tech story of 2008.

After sitting in on a presentation from the Democratic National Committee and organized labor, where they boasted about their expensive and complicated micro-targeting efforts, and after listening to Republicans brag about their voter databases that let them determine voting behaviors by using beer choice, it was amusing to watch both operations, which are certainly important, get overwhelmed by an organization trading stickers for voting information.

Early on in the campaign MoveOn.org, a liberal-leaning organization, managed to get much of the data it wanted by offering those now ubiquitous (at least on college campuses) HOPE stickers, created by Los Angeles street artist Shepard Fairey. By offering one free sticker to anyone who would give over a mailing address, phone number and e-mail address, MoveOn.org captured data from liberal-leaning individuals. They also offered more stickers for a low-low price, using the extra money for organization and advertising.

Why does this matter? Using the money and data, they were able to put 428,133 volunteers and register 225,000 voters in swing states. Using a campaign of well-designed stickers, posters and shirts, MoveOn turned this data and money into a major GOTV machine. They're now offering Shepard Fairey-designed victory stickers with a similar offer, and more than 2.3 million of them have been given out.

The Obama campaign's efforts, guided by new-media consultants who have an unparalleled understanding of how willing young people are to hand over information (have your kids show you what they put on Facebook), are even more surprising. The campaign offered almost nothing but still was able to get people to hand over their information.

Remember the plan the Obama campaign had to announce its veep choice via text message? The mainstream media, in a victory over new media, was able to figure out the pick before it was sent out to people's BlackBerrys and iPhones. The media reported that Joe Biden would be the VP almost five hours before the message went out. Was that a failure? Not at all.

Unlike landline phone numbers, cell phone numbers aren't typically printed in phone books and are harder to get. Younger people also are more likely than their older peers to have only a cell phone (I'm guilty of this), to the lament of pollsters and politicians alike. A text message can only go to a cell phone, so if you get someone to sign up for a text message you're basically guaranteed to get a cell phone number. When you get a cell phone number, you know the area code where they live and thus know if they're in a swing state. Despite fumbling the announcement, the Obama campaign netted around 3 million numbers at an estimated cost of around $1 million. Was it worth it? I think so.

The award for the most successful and cynical data-mining effort goes to the Obama campaign for its official iPhone application. Though the application had some helpful and hopeful features, such as helping you find your local campaign office and explaining policy positions to you, the most important feature was all about getting voters to the polls. After installing the application it would, if you wished, reorganize your address book in order of importance.

How did it determine who was most important? It didn't figure out who you called the most or look for clues like "mom" or "my baby" but instead mined the book for voters in swing states, as determined by area code. Your ex-girlfriend's cousin's mechanic in Virginia was suddenly at the top of your phone book while your grandma, living in Utah, was right at the bottom.

In the end, the entire effort put forth by both parties to gather data is indicative of the philosophical divide between Karl Rove's campaign and the Obama efforts. Republicans mastered the art of divining voter intentions by spying on their magazine subscriptions and cereal choice. Democrats have mastered the art of getting voters to tell the campaign they're interested by offering something, however inexpensive, in return.