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A New Data-Mining Technique To Uncover New Hampshire Influencers

By Sasha Issenberg, Bloomberg News (TNS)

In recent weeks, as Ben Carson began to slip in national polls of the Republican presidential primary field, volunteers at New Day for America, the super PAC backing Ohio Gov. John Kasich, began calling Carson backers in New Hampshire who might be open to Kasich as a second or third choice. But these weren’t just shots in the dark. They were equipped with a target list of voters identified as social anchors — people who are particularly influential within their personal networks, based on information culled from yearbooks, church lists, sports rosters, and other sources nationwide.

The list was prepared by Applecart, a New York-based data company that specializes in taking social-network analysis offline. Rather than merely looking for relationships validated on sites like Facebook and Twitter, Applecart is using a variety of sources to build its own map of the analog links between Americans. The idea is to help campaigns identify the voters who are likeliest to shape the attitudes and opinions of others around them, and then work to engage them as supporters. Applecart’s approach upends the logic of volunteer campaigns, in which campaigns look outward from the supporters they already have; instead, Applecart’s system starts with the targets they want to reach and then moves back to find people who are connected with them. “What we’re talking about is not finding that Rihanna is probably influential to my 19-year-old female cousin, but that the one person in her community whose name no one knows yet is influential (to her) because they went to high school together,” says Sacha Samotin, 24, one of Applecart’s founders.

Samotin and two classmates began the company three years ago as undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania, meeting as research assistants to John DiIulio, a prominent political scientist who once served as adviser to George W. Bush. Under DiIulio’s guidance, the trio embarked on a project to take the sort of social-media targeting that was then in vogue — that year the Obama campaign developed a pioneering app called “Targeted Sharing” — and apply it to those who had not agreed to open up access to their online friend lists, or were not even active on Facebook at all. (A recent Pew analysis showed the generational cohort most likely to be Republicans was aged 69 to 86.)

Applecart executives are coy about its methods for retrieving the underlying data, although they hint that it stretches from labor-intensive work like library visits nationwide to scraping of websites, such as law-firm directories that inventory co-workers. Samotin says Applecart has developed processes around this work that it is currently seeking to patent.

On Applecart’s “social graph” of New Hampshire, each voter is treated as a node in a network with each of their known contacts webbed around them. (Around a dozen voters in the state were found to be “hermits,” with no meaningful interpersonal links.) Nuclear family, extended family, friends, professional acquaintances, and non-professional acquaintances are each assigned different statistical weights, then mixed with other values such as geographical proximity to calibrate a “connection score” between the voters in question. “A coworker who lives on the same block as a Manchester voter would be in a different category than a coworker who lives in Nashua,” says Samotin.

One application of such mapping was validated last year, when Applecart mimicked a classic 2006 experiment in which political scientists at Yale sent Michigan residents copies of their own voting records, along with those of their neighbors, with a threat to send out an updated notice after that year’s primary marking who had cast a ballot. Turnout among those who got the mailer increased 8 percentage points, the largest effect ever produced by a single piece of direct mail. When Applecart analysts replicated the experiment, they replaced neighbors’ vote histories with those whose names were likely to be personally familiar to the recipient. In one southern state that had competitive statewide elections last year, the “socially inspired” approach increased turnout among recipients by 14.6 percentage points.

An intimate approach to grass-roots politics is essential to Kasich, who has increasingly banked his campaign on a strong showing in a state where the difference between finishing in eighth place and third could be as few as 20,000 votes. Applecart was sought out by the pro-Kasich super PAC in part because — unlike outside groups backing Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz — it wanted to develop the type of volunteer-based field activities that others have left to the candidates’ own organizations. “So many companies use data to overcomplicate politics,” says New Day chief strategist Matt David. “We’re trying to use data to leverage existing relationships to find Kasich supporters, and then turn them out.”

When volunteers arrive at New Day phone banks either in New Hampshire or Kasich’s political base of Columbus, Ohio, they are given call sheets prioritized by who the voters know. The targets are prospective “anchors,” those whom statistical models have identified as open to Kasich (even as a second or third choice) and also whose connection scores showed them as likely to be interacting with others. The idea is to convert these anchors into de facto campaign surrogates. “It doesn’t take too many people who are connected to a persuadable target to say nice things to them about John Kasich,” to start to close the deal, says Matt Kalmans, a 22-year-old co-founder of Applecart.

Outreach to party and elected officials, who are usually approached on a candidate’s behalf by other elites, follows a similar logic. “One of the strategies we’re using is instead of going directly to the (person from whom they’d like an endorsement) we go to the people around them and try to push them,” says New Day political director Dave Luketic. “That’s incredibly important because one of the metrics they use is: can this guy run a good campaign?” This is one area where the super- PAC is at a particular disadvantage, given that it is legally forbidden to directly communicate with the organization that secures endorsements. “We just set ’em up and the campaign knocks ’em down,” Luketic says.

©2015 Bloomberg. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Republican U.S. presidential candidate Governor John Kasich speaks at the debate held by Fox Business Network for the top 2016 U.S. Republican presidential candidates debate in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, November 10, 2015. REUTERS/Darren Hauck 


Bernie Sanders Has A History Of Careful Dealings With Democrats

By Sasha Issenberg, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — In the first week of May in 1990, the former mayor of Vermont’s largest city met with some of the most liberal members of the U.S. House of Representatives, a body he hoped to join after that November’s election. “I look forward to working with you on my issues come next January,” he wrote to one, Colorado’s Patricia Schroeder, a week later.

There was only one thing that separated Bernie Sanders from the legislators, whose views on the need for a new national health care system, environmental protection measures, and even Cold War policies were ones he shared. They were all proud Democrats, and he just as proudly wasn’t.

But the famously socialist Sanders also knew the key to winning his three-way race for Congress was persuading Vermont Democrats that his hard-earned independence wouldn’t cripple him once elected. Two years earlier, when Sanders attended a Democratic caucus in Burlington, a number of caucus-goers he recognized as “old-time Dems” stood and turned their backs as he gave a speech in support of presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. When Sanders returned to his seat afterward, a woman slapped him in the face.

“It was an exciting evening,” Sanders recalled in his memoir, “Outsider in the House.” “I participated in a formal Democratic Party function for the first and last time in my life.”

Now Sanders aspires to participate in at least one more. He hopes to address the party’s convention next summer as the party’s nominee for president, even as he resolutely refuses to identify as a Democrat.

It’s a balancing act Sanders has been practicing for at least 25 years. The meeting with Schroeder and other Democratic legislators was one of a series of crucial secret negotiations with Washington Democrats, extending over the summer of 1990, in which he worked to get members of a club he refused to join to nonetheless announce publicly that they were willing to have him as a member.

At the time, Sanders’ entire career in Vermont had been defined in opposition to the party he accused of maintaining an unhealthy monopoly on left-of-center politics in the state. Like every Vermonter registered without party affiliation. He left no record of the party primaries for state or local office in which he chose to cast a ballot. He began his career on the anti-war Liberty Union Party’s ticket, a perennial gadfly candidate for governor and senator. Sanders’s eventual election as mayor in 1981 — by a tiny margin in a four-way race — inspired other leftists to seek election outside the two-party system, under the new banner of the Vermont Progressive Party.

When he first ran for the House of Representatives in 1988, Sanders started as the third man in a race against Democrat Paul Poirier and Republican Peter Smith, a former lieutenant governor who, like Sanders, had lost a campaign for governor in 1986. (That year, both had finished behind Democratic incumbent Madeleine Kunin.) But by November, he had moved into a close second place with 38 percent of the vote, twice the Democrat’s tally and only four points shy of the winner’s. “I would never again be called a spoiler,” Sanders would write in his memoir.

What had stopped him from consolidating enough votes on the left, Sanders concluded afterward, were suggestions from supporters of Dolores Sandoval, a black educator who had been a convention delegate for Jesse Jackson but had never held office that if elected, Sanders’ status as a man without a party would leave him (and the state) powerless in Congress. Perhaps an independent could govern a city — U.S. News and World Report had indeed ranked him one of the country’s top 20 mayors — but he would be ineffectual in a body whose entire process was constructed around an adversarial two-party system. As Vermont’s lone representative there, he would be no better than a bystander among legislators.

So, as Sanders plotted a rematch against Smith two years later, he emphatically declared that he would attempt to join the House Democratic Caucus even though he had no relationship to the party. Voters could reasonably doubt whether such a maneuver was even possible: no independent had been elected to the House in 40 years. Even as he dismissed the two parties as interchangeable — he had long called them “tweedle-dee” and “tweedle-dum” in speeches and op-eds — Sanders realized he would need to be able to tell voters he would have a home in one of them. “We would fully expect the issue to be raised again this year,” he wrote in a private letter in May 1990.

This time, the Democratic nominee looked to be the spoiler. Sanders described the election as “basically a two-person contest, since there is no strong Democrat in the race,” dismissing Sandoval. Largely unknown to voters, the Democratic candidate was barely breaking 1 percent when the three-way race was polled. Sandoval’s party effectively abandoned her: Gubernatorial nominee Peter Welch endorsed Sanders over Sandoval, while Kunin and Sen. Patrick Leahy sat out the race.

Sanders had always conspicuously refused to kowtow to elected Democrats in Vermont, but he approached those in Congress as an eager supplicant. With second-term Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio as his guide to official Washington, Sanders met with other liberal members to win their backing. DeFazio was ready to offer an endorsement, but he convinced Sanders he should use his introduction to his congressional colleagues to ask for something else.

“It would be very helpful to show that I could work within the Democratic caucus, and particularly, with progressive Democrats like you,” Sanders wrote to Schroeder, the Colorado congresswoman who in 1988 had undertaken a two-month dalliance with a presidential campaign. “Not an endorsement, but simply a statement that if I were elected, you would be glad to have me join the Democratic caucus.”

In requesting what he called a “favor,” Sanders emphasized that he had backed the Democratic nominees for president in 1984 and 1988, and Leahy for Senate in 1986. (Sanders did not mention that he had run against Leahy in 1974.) Sanders did not offer anything of his own in the spirit of goodwill — such as, for example, a pledge to back a Democrat as speaker of the House — and tried to minimize it as an act of political courage. “The plan is simply to send out a press release about these letters, to be able to neutralize any attack on the ‘effectiveness’ issue,” wrote Sanders. “We wouldn’t present these letters as any kind of endorsement, but simply as statements that if I’m elected, I’ll be able to work within the Democratic caucus.”

Ultimately the race was not even close. Sanders won a clear majority, beating Smith by 16 points. Sandoval, the Democrat, finished with only 3 percent of the vote. Summertime entreaties to congressional Democrats had yielded mixed returns for Sanders. Beyond DeFazio, he won one other endorsement, from Barney Frank; the representative from neighboring Massachusetts would in subsequent years come to Vermont to campaign alongside Sanders. Schroeder, however, dismissed Sanders’s request for a public embrace. “Considering that a Democrat is in the field, I would rather abstain from making any statements,” she informed him.

Even after Sanders decamped to Washington to set up his office, not every Democrat was eager to increase the party’s majority by welcoming a new legislator who wouldn’t fully join their club. Texan Charlie Stenholm, who led the conservative Blue Dog faction, tried to keep Sanders out of the House Democratic Caucus, circulating to members a compendium of news clippings highlighting his years of disparaging their party. (“He was of the opinion that having a socialist in the caucus would not sit well with folks back home,” Sanders said of Stenholm’s motives.)

Speaker Tom Foley and Majority Leader Dick Gephardt struck a compromise with Sanders. He would not join their caucus, but for the purposes of seniority and committee assignments they would count him as one of their own. Democratic leaders would, however, levy one penalty on Sanders for remaining an outsider: he would be treated, in perpetuity, as the most junior member of the class of 1990.

After that, Sanders quickly began to build his own political home. That year, he and DeFazio invited colleagues to join them in establishing an identity-neutral counterpart to the black, Latino, and women’s caucuses that served as an umbrella for much of the work undertaken by liberal lawmakers.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus launched in 1991 with five members. Its first chairman was Bernie Sanders. He ran unopposed.

Photo: Jen Wegmann-Gabb via Flicker

What Tech Strategy Reveals About The Republican Top Tier

By Sasha Issenberg, Bloomberg News (TNS)

WASHINGTON — There may be no easier way to flummox operatives or journalists who insist on the importance of “data” and “analytics” in politics than asking them to explain exactly what the words mean to them. Today there is data generated by every arm of a campaign, and opportunities to analyze nearly all of it. Which of those challenges a campaign tries to take on with its limited time and resources can illuminate not only its technological fetishes but its view of the race: What innovations does it need to undertake to win?

In 2012, Mitt Romney was the only Republican candidate whose campaign even attempted to develop a sophisticated approach to using data and analytics. (Romney’s strongest rival in the primaries, Rick Santorum, boasted of not even having a pollster in his employ.) By the time he got to the general election, Romney’s small data-sciences team was fixated on one big problem: attempting to measure the causal interaction between television ads, media coverage and poll numbers. As his lead data scientist, Alex Lundry, put it at the time: “How can we get a sense of whether this advertising is working?”

More Republican candidates are attempting to make serious investments in analytics in 2016, but as The New York Times‘s Ashley Parker noted recently, there is likely not enough talent in conservative politics to support all of them. Already, it’s possible, by looking at the teams each of the top-tier contenders are assembling (along with their affiliated PACs and super-PACs), to see the contours of their priorities as candidates and guess at what they think is the most important problem they need to solve.

How do we monitor quick shifts by individual voters in a fluid primary electorate?

Scott Walker’s chief data officer, Mark Stephenson, worked for years at FLS Connect, a phone vendor that has had close ties to the Republican National Committee over the past decade.

Stephenson was responsible not only for the firm’s data technology, but developing systems so that information gathered by FLS phone operators in their conversations with voters fed efficiently back to campaign clients so that it could guide future contact. Versions of such software are now widely available to campaigners across the GOP and other organizations on the right, but there is still work to do attaching them to a dynamic modeling process — so that a voter telling a call-center operator she has changed her preferred candidate can immediately inform parallel predictions about other voters who statistically resemble her.

This is particularly important in a primary where voter opinions are fluid, and susceptible to day-by-day changes of a kind that are unlikely in a general election. Some candidates, notably Rand Paul, talk insistently about expanding the ranks of available targets by recruiting voters new to the Republican primary process. For Walker, whose campaign-in-waiting is now being housed at his Our American Revival PAC, there is little such talk. Instead there’s a priority on studious tracking of the opinions of the existing pool of party loyalists, particularly in Iowa, where Stephenson’s firm, Cardinal Insights, was one of the first consultants hired by Joni Ernst’s successful 2014 campaign for the Senate and set vote goals for her impressive primary victory.

Barely 120,000 people participated in the state’s 2012 caucuses, which means an insular group of voters — many of them older and whiter, and thus more likely to be reachable over traditional phones — that Walker’s campaign will want to monitor closely over the next nine months. If he is losing rural supporters to a Rick Perry surge, or that soft Ted Cruz backers are moving to Marco Rubio in a way that should give Walker pause, that’s likely to become most immediately apparent not through traditional polls but patterns of response to questions asked by the campaign’s paid or volunteer canvassers and callers. (At its heart, the big difference between the two methods is that IDs are not assigned randomly with the aim of being probabilistic, but they can be weighted through statistical models to depict the electorate as a whole.)

We’ll probably have less money than our most serious competitors. Can we spend it better?

Rubio appears to be running the leanest campaign, and making a big show of it, with fewer apparent staff hires. Where other candidates are building in-house data and analytics teams, Rubio looks ready to rely overwhelmingly on a single outside firm that positions itself as professional skeptics about the existing consulting regime. Optimus partners Scott Tranter, Chris Faulkner, and Brian Stobie talk a lot about “getting bang for your buck.” They market themselves as an all-purpose minder of resource allocation across campaign departments, working on a retainer instead of commission on particular categories of spending. “You get a sense the digital vendors don’t like the TV guys, want more $, and have some vague high-tech ways to ‘win the election,'” mocks a recent case study from the firm.

Predictably, that adversarial swagger has made many of those who are ostensibly working on the same side as Optimus view them as adversaries, at least for input on campaign spending decisions. If Rubio is serious about keeping his campaign svelte, the firm that boasts to potential clients about “holding digital accountable” will be expected to do the same for spending on media, paid voter contact and volunteer field operations, often using randomized experiments to do. Like many outside auditors, Optimus will be perfectly set up to be used as bad guy for campaign manager Terry Sullivan if unorthodox spending decisions antagonize consultants or vendors angling for a larger share of the budget.

We’re about to put gazillions of dollars on television. How can we be confident we’re showing our ads to people who really open to voting for us?

The most significant move Bush has made is to outsource core campaign functions to his Right to Rise super-PAC and set up an independent “data trust” overseen by Andy Barkett, a former RNC chief technology officer. If the system works, it should give the campaign and super-PAC a method for legally relying on the same pool of tactical knowledge while minimizing the costs to the campaign itself. But any delay or latency processing data between pro-Jeb entities could be deadly. If a one-time Jeb supporter tells a volunteer canvasser at his South Carolina doorstep days before the primary that he’s now leaning toward Lindsey Graham, will that information move quickly enough to ensure the super-PAC isn’t still putting get-out-the-vote ads in his web browser?

Bush’s marquee analytics hire will likely be less concerned with such logistics than the television budget. After working for Romney, Lundry spun off from TargetPoint Consulting — pioneers in the practice of microtargeting — to start his own firm, Deep Root Analytics, devoted to improving methods for targeting television ads. Deep Root has linked from individual set-top boxes to cable subscribers’ voter-registration records, and has created custom ratings for shows, networks and dayparts based on voter attributes rather than Nielsen’s broad demographic buckets. Deep Root offers off-the-shelf ratings — are women swing voters or older base Republicans overrepresented in a particular show’s audience? — and develops custom ratings according to a campaign’s identified targets. Greg Abbott’s campaign last year for governor of Texas concluded that by using Deep Root’s ratings, it saved $4 million in its statewide TV budget, buying fewer ads often at lower rates to reach the same targets for its messages.

Bush is not only likely to spend more money than any of his Republican opponents, but has some peculiar audiences that will benefit from well-targeted TV buys. Which shows on the schedule are heavily watched by the English-speaking Latinos in Jeb’s persuadable universe that aren’t reachable on Univision and Telemundo? Are there shows whose audiences are overrepresented by conservative mothers of school-aged children who might be more responsive to a pro-Common Core message than the broader primary electorate? And if Barkett’s data trust contracts with Deep Root, both the campaign and super-PAC should be able to access those same custom ratings to ensure both are making complementary decisions about where pro-Jeb ads should run.

Photo: Scott Walker, one of the Republican presidential contenders, has hired a chief data officer. Not all the candidates have hired staffers for an internal analytics team. Gage Skidmore via Flickr