Data mining is new lobbying gold

Originally published February 16, 2013

A congressman gets an earful from his neighbor after church about a tax bill. A senator suddenly finds old high school classmates calling her about an upcoming vote on a small business bill.

Those meetings may not be coincidences.

The same social data-mining ability and concept — that voters are more likely to consider new ideas from people they know and trust — that helped power President Barack Obama’s unprecedented field operation is coming to K Street.

More than two dozen trade organizations, local chambers of commerce and advocacy groups have already used the RAP (which stands for Relationships, Advocability and Political capital) Index, a one-of-a-kind piece of advocacy and lobbying software, to help find hidden social connections between lawmakers and their members. The goal? To leverage real-life connections on behalf of organizations — and to put a human face on complicated policy questions.

“We uncovered a lot of relationships where people were like: ‘Oh yea, I’ve known him for 20 years,’ ‘our kids are friends,’ ‘he goes to my church,’ ‘I see him every Sunday in the grocery store,’” said Keeley Mullis, grass-roots program manager at the National Federation of Independent Business — an organization that uses the RAP Index survey.

Here’s how it works: a trade association or advocacy group sends the RAP Index survey to their members by email. The software confirms their address, and finds a list of their local, state or federal elected officials. The survey asks members in-depth questions about any relationships with those officials and whether they’d be willing to be media surrogates.

The company claims to have uncovered a whole slew of hidden relationships between trade organization members and lawmakers. In one case, a member of an organization coached a U.S. senator’s child in basketball. Another member went to high school with a governor. And one organization found that a member was married to a state senator — a relationship they were unaware of before using the RAP Index. (Strict nondisclosure agreements keep the company from revealing what companies or lawmakers were involved.)

Finding and exploiting those kind of peer-to-peer, direct relationships can be a gold mine for a trade organization.

The RAP Index’s creator, public affairs veteran and South Carolina Republican consultant Chip Felkel, said his software is a smarter way to do grass-roots advocacy and direct lobbying — using technology to foster in-person human-to-human interactions, rather than just form emails, petitions or faxes.

“With all the technology, with all the noise, it still, at the end of the day, comes down to relationships,” Felkel told POLITICO. “We have a way to use technology to then leverage those relationships effectively as messengers on behalf of an issue.”

Felkel said that as advocacy groups have enthusiastically embraced technologies like email, they’ve lost sight of the personal touch and real-life relationships that make for successful lobbying.

“We’ve allowed technology to make it faceless — which is not necessarily effective,” he said, about grass-roots lobbying and advocacy.

His philosophy is similar to how the Obama campaign itself viewed its unprecedented collection of voter data — a program that Felkel, a Republican, is quick to praise. At a private meeting for donors in January, campaign manager Jim Messina bragged that it was peer-to-peer Obama campaign contacts that made the difference in battleground states.

Messina said that his fiancée spent some time at the end of the campaign knocking on doors in Wisconsin — and told him an anecdote about how the campaign’s microtargeting data helped her be efficient and effective.

“She said, OK, there was a Romney campaign staffer on the other side. He hit every door. I was told to knock on two doors on that block,” Messina said. His finacée was successful in getting both voters to support Obama with a tailored, personalized approach built on voter data — while the Romney campaign organizer had to go house to house with a generic script.

“Two doors, two contacts, two successful votes,” Messina told the donors. “The Romney campaign staffer knocked on every single door. Probably half of them weren’t home, 60 percent were supporting us already. That is why you have data. That is why you spend five years” building a data apparatus. In short — the Obama campaign’s data were useless without a smart, targeted approach to voters by a real human volunteer.

In other cases, the Obama campaign leveraged volunteers to contact their own peers via Facebook, email or face-to-face conversations — leaning on research that showed persuading people was easier when done by a friend or neighbor.

Felkel said the company isn’t profitable yet, but is on track to be soon. He self-funded the software when he saw that no other products on the market were doing anything similar.

While the five-year-old company is bound by data secrecy with many clients, Felkel said it has about 30 clients and eight staff members. Those clients include various local and state chambers of commerce, the American Association of Orthodontists and the National Federation of Independent Business.

“A real story tends to get a lot more mileage,” said Stefan Hankin, president of Lincoln Park Strategies. He and his firm have studied effective lobbying and grass-roots advocacy best practices on Capitol Hill. “Offices these days are just inundated with petitions, with signatures, with blast emails.”

Hankin said his research found that petitions and impersonal form emails — especially if they come from voters outside a member’s district — are generally the least valuable advocacy tool for a group to adopt. But ironically, they’re some of the most common approaches by groups seeking to influence policy.

“RAP Index and products like it are necessary tools to utilize available data in an effort to further a cause. Form letters and emails can easily be discarded but public online statements targeted directly at elected officials Twitter accounts, Facebook walls, or even calls made into offices via the Web are much more powerful. Especially when it’s the right people who are motivated to communicate,” said Vincent Harris, a GOP digital strategist.

“The Hill needs to be prepared for the coming lobbying shift, where backed by data, entire online communities are a part of the process, lobbying their elected officials on an issue,” he said.