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Technology Teaches Old-School Door-to-Door Campaigns New Tricks

Callie Richmond for the Texas Tribune
Block-walking may still be a part of any political campaign, but voter data provides campaigns with invaluable insights to find sure-bet voters.

Campaigning for the November elections usually hits high-gear around this time. Political ads and mailers proliferate, which is followed by more one-on-one campaigning.

The nostalgic view often depicts politicians walking through a neighborhood, knocking on doors, shaking hands and kissing babies. But, in a world filled with smart phones, email blasts and geo-targeting, how has technology changed the door-to-door campaign?

Brian Smith is a political science professor at St. Edward's University. He says local elections absolutely rely on a traditional political ground game. Smith says voters can expect plenty of that in the races for Austin City Council under the new, hyper-local geographic representation system.

"It's going around, meeting your neighbors, attending civic events, putting signs in the yard, because that's the only way you're going to actually generate any name recognition," he says.

He says local campaigns often don't have enough money to do television advertising, especially when most of the people who see the ad live outside the district in question. So, along with block walking, campaigns are using cheaper, more targeted digital tools.

Borrell Associates, a Virginia-based media consulting firm recently released a report on just how much money campaigns are spending on digital ads. The firm's vice president Kip Casino says digital spending is up.

"It's still going to be only about two cents out of every dollar spent. Most of it's still going to TV," he says. "However in 2016, based on what's happening this year, we're looking for it to go up to 10 percent of what's spent."

Casino says digital advertising is also more versatile. A television ad can grab votes, a web ad can get votes while providing a direct connection to money and possible campaign volunteers. 

Ross Ramsey is executive editor of the Texas Tribune, KUT's political reporting partner. Just like April showers bring May flowers, digital outreach in the summer leads to ground game support in the fall.

"The campaigns are trying to raise money," Ramsey says. "They're trying to get their supporters who are going to be activists, who are going to go door to door and that kind of thing, engaged and ready to go for the fall campaigns."

Battleground Texas has made door-knocking and phone banks a centerpiece of its goal to "turn Texas blue" and elect Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis. Executive director Jenn Brown says getting people involved in a ground game online can have a multiplier effect.

"Find people online and talk to them and get them involved and then invite them to events offline where they come and make a phone call or knock a door," Brown says. "And then they post online that that's what they were doing and that gets more of their friends engaged. And then their friends also go knock doors and make phone calls and it's sort of a cycle of involvement that includes online and offline."

When those people do head out for some good old fashioned door-knocking, the data campaigns collect from online outreach, like Facebook, Twitter and others sites, helps them guide those on-the-ground volunteers to the right doors.

"People are absolutely able to use and starting to use access to data to determine how likely they are to win, who has to vote for them to win, who is likely to vote for them, and what the issues they need to be talking about are," says Casino.

So, yes, the ground game of your parents and grandparents is still in use today. But the campaigns have used the ability to collect, search, and analyze data to make sure their only knocking on the doors that will open, and maybe invite the volunteer in for coffee.

Ben Philpott is the Managing Editor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @BenPhilpottKUT.
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