But even if all that is possible, Catalist CEO Laura Quinn isn't sure her firm could handle all that data. "Big data is the bigger challenge so far as the amount of data we can associate," she says. It's not the amount of data that's at issue, she explains, but the level of difficulty involved with matching up large volumes of data that have missing name and/or address elements. The investment in additional infrastructure to do all of that processing couldn't be justified by the potential success rate, she says.
Many of the data mining and microtargeting approaches in use today were first put to work in 2008, says Patrick Hynes, president of Hynes Communications, a consultancy specializing in online and new media communications strategy that currently serves as an adviser to the Romney campaign. "Nobody has invented anything new apart from the fact that it's been digitized, made mobile and put online. The difference is there's significantly more data out there because people are making more information about themselves available online," and that allows for more sophisticated targeting.
Before, campaigns would segment the electorate by voting precinct or broad demographic groups, such as women. With richer data, messaging can focus on, for example, married women of a specific age and income level, with specific interests, who live in major metro areas in swing states. "You can get a rough estimate of the Wal-Mart mom, which is the key demographic in this cycle," Hynes says.
Blaise Hazelwood, principal at Grassroots Targeting, is a microtargeting specialist whose clients include the Republican National Committee and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whom she assisted during the recent gubernatorial recall election. It's the psychographic data coming in from online sources that's changing the game, she argues. "We are better able to connect individuals with their online habits than ever before," and that data is very valuable for targeting. It's still difficult to match up offline and online personas but, she says, "There are companies out there that match up cookie IDs with personal information."
Tools are available today to match Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook profiles to voter files, says Patrick Ruffini, president of Engage DC, a firm that handles online advertising and analytics work for the Republican National Committee and individual Republican candidates. "Facebook and Twitter have become a repository for consumer data that's unequalled in history in terms of consumer intent, preferences and political affiliation," he says. Facebook isn't an open database, and user privacy settings restrict access in some cases.