Mobile Apps Help Campaigns Track Voters

Originally published November 5, 2012

Mobile technology is a big part of the election endgame for both presidential campaigns, but right now the efforts are focused more on turning out those already identified as supporters and not on persuading last-minute deciders.

Republican Mitt Romney is leading with a mobile vote-counting effort called Project Orca. (The name appears to be a whimsical rejoinder to the Obama campaign’s Project Narwhal.) The campaign expects to have 30,000 trained volunteer poll-watchers at election sites in battleground states using a Web-based app to record on a mobile phone or tablet information about who shows up to vote. It’s the digital equivalent of the work done by election monitors who stand behind the check-in desk at a polling station to see which names are being checked off the voter rolls.

The information will be relayed instantaneously to Romney’s Boston headquarters, where campaign staffers can parse the data to evaluate how their turnout plan is going. The profusion of real-time data allows the campaign to focus its resources on making contact with voters who haven’t yet made the trip to the polls. The Romney political operation started work on Project Orca in the primary season, as a means of better coordinating its field efforts with Boston headquarters.

“In the exit polls, they generally have 70,000 data points from across the states. We’ll have this in the first couple of hours,” Romney spokeswoman Sarah Pompei told National Journal.

Democratic election technology firm NGP VAN announced a similar tool on Monday. Its Mobile Pollwatcher app is built into a voter-contact system used by Democratic candidates. As election monitors enter names into the app, it matches them with the five-digit code used in the Voter Activation Network voter list, and updates it across Democratic party databases. “In places like Nevada where the president’s campaign is going to be active, [Senate candidate Shelley] Berkley is going to benefit,” said Stu Trevelyan, CEO of NGP VAN. “In a state like Pennsylvania, which the Republicans are trying to put in play, and Obama doesn’t have as many poll-watchers, their [get-out-the-vote] effort can be informed by what [Democratic Sen.] Bob Casey is doing.”

The Romney campaign didn’t say whether its effort was synced with overall party efforts, but it indicated that the work accomplished by Project Orca would turn out likely Republican voters.

These data-driven efforts are largely designed to add a new level of efficiency to election voter-mobilization efforts. In past elections, this data were recorded by volunteers with voter lists checking off names on clipboards. The data would be brought in to a campaign and entered into a database as quickly as possible. Trevelyan said that the lag in delivering the data could mean “the difference between it being useful and it not being useful.”

Mobile messaging also offers an opportunity to practitioners of negative campaigning. The firm ccAdvertising has been sending text messages with strong anti-Obama messages to potential voters. It claims to skirt Federal Communications Commission rules governing unsolicited text messages by blasting messages as e-mails to wireless carriers, which are then relayed to user phones as messages. Scott Goodstein, founder of Revolution Messaging and a vocal critic of unsolicited political texts, worries that Election Day messages could be used to mislead voters. “It’s the really bad stuff—that polling locations have been moved, that voting ends early, date changes—we’ve seen all this stuff.”

The threat of this kind of skullduggery takes on added urgency in states struggling in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy. While New Jersey has given residents the option of voting by fax or e-mail, voters in other affected states will face challenges, because they are staying far from their polling place or because their polling place has been changed.

More experimental efforts at mobile advertising are being done in down-ticket races. Vince Harris, a Republican digital strategist who is working on the Senate races of Linda McMahon in Connecticut and Ted Cruz in Texas, as well as Rep. Allen West’s reelection bid in Florida. In the waning days of West’s campaign, Harris has been targeting a Facebook campaign exclusively to mobile social-network users. By combining voter file data, demographic information, and geo-location technology, a Facebook ad can be targeted almost on an individual level. The downside is that matching voter files and Facebook names isn’t that effective, producing only 20 percent to 30 percent matching, Harris said, but that number improves when he’s able to check it against voters who have had contacts from the West campaign. “It’s a really cool new way to advertise that didn’t exist even three or four months ago,” he said.

“My goal now is moving money,” Harris said. For Election Day, he plans to “dump my persuasion-based digital budget and spend the money on the active voter searching for information.” That means using Google search advertising to target voters waiting in line at the polls or in their cars doing last-minute research on candidates to make last-minute selections.

Peter Pasi, a veteran Republican digital strategist who is consulting for Josh Mandel’s Senate campaign in Ohio, agreed, saying, “Search is an extremely powerful form of discovery for voters.” He noted that especially in battleground states, people may be turning out to vote for a presidential candidate. “Down-ticket races are being overshadowed by the presidential in a lot of markets,” he said. This gives an opportunity for last-minute appeals to voters who are seeking out information late in the game. “Anyone who is searching for you is obviously interested,” he said.

While practitioners are excited about having access to a platform that voters carry around with them, these are early days for mobile electioneering. “Think of your average race—they’re doing zero on mobile,” Harris said.