How Political Campaigns Leverage Location Data in an Era of Virtual Events

Flashback to 2016. Both the Clinton and Trump campaigns were using location data to target potential voters, bringing people to rallies and relying on modeled data to determine party affiliations down to the neighborhood level.

This year looks a lot different.

Covid-19 has dramatically decreased the desire of campaigns to host in-person rallies this election cycle.

“Before the onset of Covid-19, we would have used opt-in mobile device location data extensively to gather devices at political rallies across the spectrum,” says Matthew Hedberg, General Manager of Semcasting, a firm that provides data and audience targeting solutions for major brands and agencies. “Unfortunately, the advent of the Covid-19 crisis has dramatically decreased the desire of campaigns to host rallies at any scale.”

Despite the shift toward holding virtual events and Zoom fundraisers, though, campaigns are still finding innovative ways to leverage location data to influence voters’ decisions.

Political ad spending is expected to reach record highs this cycle, topping $6.89 billion in the 2019/2020 election period. This cycle’s spending is 63% higher than spending in the 2015/2016 season. Tapping into location data to make that advertising more relevant has taken a bit more creativity than usual.

As Hedberg explains, large data organizations have been working to create scoring methodologies that would measure an individual or household’s sensitivity to resuming normal activities since nearly the beginning of the pandemic. Location data has been used as a significant component of this process, especially when datasets from before the beginning of lockdowns still exist on users’ devices.

“These scores were developed as a way to jumpstart communication with those that have demonstrated a comfort level with visiting retail locations, restaurants, or other types of locations during lockdowns. If a campaign is trying to learn about a voter and their interest in voting by mail versus visiting a polling place on Election Day, this data might serve as a good proxy,” Hedberg says.

Across the country, local, state, and national political groups have been forced to move the majority of their events online. While this summer did not bring the big events and fundraisers of previous election cycles, campaigns across the board are still finding ways to leverage location data. Some of the savviest local and state campaigns are utilizing location to infer interest and affiliation from their voters, instead of relying on modeled or surveyed data to determine their stances.

“A campaign could gather the devices of parents or teachers at existing charter schools or public school systems and then compare the data with voter records to determine an individual’s proclivity to a stance in an individual election,” Hedberg says.

Another prime use case for political campaigns involves gathering devices from where large-scale events have taken place in support of racial justice. By leveraging this information in conjunction with existing voter records, Hedberg says a savvy campaign could tap into those previously unengaged with the political process or even not registered to vote in the first place.

The Trump 2020 mobile app, which was built by Phunware, includes a variety of tools to get voters engaged, along with a “location experience kit” that people can use to pair their phone’s Bluetooth with beacons set up throughout event venues. The Trump 2020 app was initially built around big rallies, where this feature would be more useful. Although there have been fewer in-person rallies than previous elections, it has been rumored that the location software may be capable of collecting data from users’ phones, as well.

Of course, outside of the most well-funded campaigns, the majority of state and local candidates don’t have the funding or the ability to collect vast amounts of personal data. Instead, candidates running for local offices are more reliant on data firms such as DataTrust, i360, TargetSmart, L2, and PDI. Hedberg says it takes significant resources and staff to consistently build and maintain capabilities between election cycles, and maintain a continuation of institutional knowledge. When smaller campaigns don’t have the funding to build and maintain their own location operations, these outside firms can step in.

“As these organizations utilize location data more systemically,” Hedberg says, “it will naturally become a more vital part of the overall political advertising landscape.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.Rainbow over Montclair

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