The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats’ latest tech mines your relationship data

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While the electorate keeps playing the Hillary Clinton waiting game, Ready for Hillary is moving ahead with a plan to achieve the next big breakthrough in campaign technology.

The super PAC that's laying the groundwork for a potential Clinton run in 2016 is testing software to determine whether data about social ties can help identify likely grassroots leaders and new supporters. While the technique was pioneered in the closing weeks of the 2012 election by Obama campaign strategists, the latest effort promises to be far more systematic. If the insights into online relationships prove useful in this year's midterm elections, further experiments could even lead to campaigns picking out the most active organizers before those people even know it.

"Coming out of Obama for America in 2012, we started to really see some things that I refer to as 'social pressure' — seeing what your friends are doing and having that influence you to have a certain behavior," said Nickie Titus, Ready for Hillary's director of digital. "We're really trying to capitalize on those lessons."

Obama's tinkering with social data began with Facebook. Obama strategists encouraged users of the social network to connect their accounts with Obama for America's Web site. Eventually, OFA figured out using an algorithm how to target political content to each individual user in ways that would get them to act. OFA officials claimed that by the end of the campaign, the targeted content was more effective at driving clicks than a comparable banner ad.

The new approach expands on that concept. What if you could find out that a Clinton supporter named Joe was able to convince his friend Sara to become a volunteer? And what if you also knew that Joe was more effective at engaging Sara than his other friend, Pete? You'd know to concentrate your efforts on a) training Sara to become the next Joe and b) to encourage Joe to keep up the good work.

Spread out across millions of voters, this knowledge could become a force multiplier for campaign strategists. From looking at interactions between individuals, they could determine the most engaged supporters and reach out to them, tapping them to train or recruit other volunteers. This "snowflake" approach to grassroots campaigning was what gave OFA much of its reach in the physical world in 2012. Now that strategy is being replicated on the Internet.

The tool for this is called Recruiter. Developed by the Democratic firm NGP VAN, Recruiter isn't connected or reliant on Facebook for data at all. In the coming weeks, it'll get its first shakedown by Ready for Hillary and other political groups. Over time, Recruiter could be combined with predictive computer modeling — another emerging political technology that's helping strategists target likely supporters based on their demographic characteristics or civic history.

Data about high-impact volunteers, said NGP VAN chief executive Stu Trevelyan, could someday be combined with predictive models to identify potential new leaders.

"It's not just 'Sally is 5 for 10 in voter contact,'" said Trevelyan, "but it's that 'People who look like Sally could be 5 for 10' and that 'People that look like Sally should be asking people that look like Jim for money' and you can predict things that way."

While campaigns have largely reached the limits of improving the voter file — those massive databases of names, e-mail addresses and commercial information that became so important in the 2012 cycle — the next step is to figure out how to identify and leverage the connections between entries in those files.