Presidential campaigns acquire personal data on voters

NEW YORK — Strategists affiliated with the campaigns of President Obama and Mitt Romney say they have access to information about the personal lives of voters at a scale never before imagined. And they are using that data to try to influence voting habits.

In effect, they are training voters to go the polls through subtle cues, rewards, and threats in a manner akin to the marketing efforts of credit card companies and big-box retailers.

In the weeks before Election Day, millions of voters will hear from callers with surprisingly detailed knowledge of their lives. These callers — friends of friends or long-lost work colleagues — will identify themselves as volunteers for the campaigns or independent political groups.


The callers will be guided by scripts and call lists compiled by people — or computers — with access to details such as whether voters may have visited pornography websites, have homes in foreclosure, are more prone to drink Michelob Ultra than Corona, or have gay friends or enjoy expensive vacations.

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The callers are likely to ask detailed question about how the voters plan to spend Election Day, according to professionals with both presidential campaigns. What time will they vote? What route will they drive to the polls? Simply asking such questions, experiments show, is likely to increase turnout.

After these conversations, when those targeted voters open their mailboxes or check their Facebook profiles, they may find that someone has divulged specifics about how frequently they and their neighbors have voted in the past. Calling out people for not voting, what experts term ‘‘public shaming,’’ can prod someone to cast a ballot.

Even as campaigns embrace this ability to know so much more about voters, they recognize the risks associated with intruding into the lives of people who have long expected that the privacy of the voting booth extends to their homes.

‘‘You don’t want your analytical efforts to be obvious because voters get creeped out,’’ said a Romney campaign official who was not authorized to speak to a reporter. ‘‘A lot of what we’re doing is behind the scenes.’’


In statements, both campaigns emphasized their dedication to voters’ privacy.

“We are committed to protecting individual privacy at every turn — adhering to industry best practices on privacy and going above and beyond what’s required by law,’’ said Adam Fetcher, an Obama campaign spokesman.

Ryan Williams, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, said: ‘‘The Romney campaign respects the privacy rights of all Americans. We are committed to ensuring that all of our voter outreach is governed by the highest ethical standards.’’

In interviews, however, consultants to both campaigns said they had bought demographic data from companies that study details like voters’ shopping histories, gambling tendencies, interest in get-rich-quick schemes, dating preferences, and financial problems.

The campaigns, according to campaign employees, have examined voters’ online exchanges and social networks to see what they care about and whom they know. They have also authorized tests to see if, say, a phone call from a distant cousin or a new friend would be more likely to prompt the urge to cast a ballot.


While the campaigns say they do not buy data that they consider intrusive, the Democratic and Republican National Committees combined have spent at least $13 million this year on data acquisition and related services. The parties have paid companies like Acxiom, Experian, and Equifax, which are subjects of congressional scrutiny over privacy concerns.

Consultants to the presidential campaigns said in interviews that their businesses had bought data from Rapleaf or Intelius, companies that have been sued over alleged privacy or consumer protection violations.

Officials at both campaigns say the most insightful data remain the basics: a voter’s party affiliation, voting history, basic information like age and race, and preferences gleaned from one-on-one conversations with volunteers.

But more subtle data mining has helped the Obama campaign learn that its supporters often eat at Red Lobster, shop at Burlington Coat Factory, and listen to smooth jazz. Romney backers are more likely to drink Samuel Adams beer, eat at Olive Garden, and watch college football.

The preoccupation with influencing voters’ habits stems from the fact that many close elections were ultimately decided by people who almost did not vote. Each campaign has identified millions of ‘‘low-propensity voters.’’

Persuading such voters is difficult, political professionals say, because direct appeals have failed. So campaigns must enlist more subtle methods.

The Obama and Romney campaigns have asked supporters to provide access to their profiles on Facebook and other social networks to chart connections to low-propensity voters in battleground states like Colorado, North Carolina, and Ohio.