If you care about politics, which I have to assume you do or else you have apparently somehow gotten very lost during your travels around this here Internet, you will want to read Sasha Issenberg's interview with Mitch Stewart at Bloomberg.
In case those names don't ring a bell, Issenberg is the author of "The Victory Lab," a very smart look at how campaigns leverage data. And Stewart is a veteran of applying that process, having worked for President Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns and, more recently, "Ready For Hillary."
What makes the interview so interesting is the discussion of how campaigns -- including "Ready For Hillary", which was essentially a data-gathering operation for Clinton's 2016 presidential bid -- scramble to collect information about voters. We've discussed the value of the e-mail address to a candidate before, but this interview makes very clear the ways in which campaigns scramble to flesh out what they know about a voter.
Think of it like a cloud of information that surrounds you. Like this.
All of the information pictured there is useful to a campaign, to varying degrees. Your e-mail address is useful because it is a constant point of contact with you that can transmit a relatively rich variety of media: photos and text and links. It allows you to check engagement, such as how often someone reads an email or links are clicked. And it's also useful because it has come to act as an identifier more broadly.
Let's take a step back. There are two things that are absolutely critical for the campaign to know about you: If you will vote and if you will vote for their candidate. All of the other information above is used to figure out the answer to those two questions, including how to put together the best possible way to get you to support the candidate. Which is a nice way of saying: finding out how to advertise to you, where, and what to say.
As you may know, your voter registration information is public. Campaigns (and, usually, anyone else) can get a list of who is registered to vote, when they registered, and the elections in which they've voted, at a minimum. There are data vendors that maintain a more complex set of data, including more detailed demographics, that campaigns can rent.
Increasingly, though, voter data has been centralized in larger organizations. The reason why is simple, and it's why Stewart thinks that data should be controlled by the Democratic National Committee: One storehouse of data means that information collected by individual campaigns over time gets rolled up into the big file. That's another way to look at the image above. Campaigns want to attach as much information they can get to You As A Voter. Storing all of that in the same persistent database over time means that campaigns collect more and more information on you.
Voter registration and home address overlap because the latter is included in your voter record. It's why you get mail from candidates every other October (assuming that you vote regularly enough to make it worth the campaign's while). And there's a lot -- a lot -- of information linked to your address. Like: Other voters! Donor history! Unlike your email address, though, your home address might change somewhat frequently. (As in, more than every four years.) And that makes extrapolating outward from your address somewhat tricky.
Your home address and email address also help build a profile of where you go online, what magazines you subscribe to, and what you shop for. There are huge data companies that follow the crumbs you leave online and collect other purchase information to resell to advertisers. Campaigns can access this information, too, but it's expensive. As we noted in a look at Facebook last year, social media firms also partner with data vendors to make their own offerings more robust.
You'll notice that we have "phone numbers" on the chart above, but not "Twitter account." Phone numbers offer some value: You can text updates or call to canvas, for example. Social media, including Twitter, hasn't proven particularly useful yet, beyond retweeting campaign messages. In 2008, the Obama campaign created an app that crawled a person's Facebook connections and matched them to voter data to expand its understanding of relationships (and to make a campaign pitch). Facebook put the kibosh on that last year.
The most interesting question Issenberg poses to Stewart comes after Stewart explains the ways in which campaigns try to flesh out what they know starting from an email address. "How do you weigh that," Issenberg asks, "between trying to get more data or more people?"
Stewart replies with a question of his own.
If you’re running a campaign or you’re running an organization, what’s more important to you: one hundred e-mail addresses, or ten fully-laid out profiles, with details about the individual including the e-mail address? What would you rather have?
His answer is, it depends. What the campaign really wants, of course, is 100 fully-laid out profiles. And it spends a lot of time and money working to get them.