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COLUMBUS, Ohio—Ohio's U.S. Senate candidates are using computer analysis to target and appeal to voters on an unprecedentedly sophisticated level. Anytime an Ohioan sees a particular Rob Portman or Ted Strickland ad, or gets a phone call or knock on their...

U.S. Senate candidates exploit cutting-edge technology to sway Ohio voters

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Ohio's U.S. Senate candidates are using computer analysis to target and appeal to voters on an unprecedentedly sophisticated level. Anytime an Ohioan sees a particular Rob Portman or Ted Strickland ad, or gets a phone call or knock on their...

U.S. Senate candidates exploit cutting-edge technology to sway Ohio voters

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Ohio's U.S. Senate candidates are using computer analysis to target and appeal to voters on an unprecedentedly sophisticated level.

Anytime an Ohioan sees a particular Rob Portman or Ted Strickland ad, or gets a phone call or knock on their door from their campaigns, it's because complex computer algorithms determined they should receive that message, based on factors ranging from the target's voting history to their spending habits.

The campaigns have also been among the most innovative in the nation when it comes to using online advertising and social media to appeal to voters.


Targeting Ohioans

Both campaigns have access to enormous databases that list every registered voter – and eligible voter – in Ohio, predict how likely each person is to support their candidate, and identify which issues might be used to win his or her vote.

Such "microtargeting" factors in hundreds of different factors, from people's voting history, to the political leanings of their neighborhoods, to their purchasing habits (someone who has bought an expensive house or car, for example, is more likely to vote for Portman, a Republican).

Campaigns also use door-to-door canvassing and phone banking to survey voters about the issues they care about most – information that's then added to their databases.

Such technology allows the two campaigns to not only identify which individual voters they need to target, but to tailor their messages to each of those voters.

A swing voter worried about Ohio's growing heroin problem, for example, will get a flier highlighting Portman's work to combat drug addiction. It works on a larger level, too: if the database shows a lot of voters in a region care about, say, jobs, Strickland can start airing TV ads there on that topic.

"It's not perfect. We don't know exactly what each voter is absolutely going to do or is absolutely thinking," said Michael Palmer, president of i360, the conservative data firm used by Portman's campaign. "But through this model, it's way, way more accurate than just going and guessing who that voter is and what they're thinking."


Comparative advantages

Portman, who has opened up a sizable lead in the race, has been especially effective at using digital technology to reach voters, said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron.

The senator began using digital modeling and online ads in early 2015 – before most other Senate campaigns in the country – and has used more of i360's services than most other candidates, Palmer said.

Portman's campaign melds this technology with a considerable ground game. Last week, the campaign announced it has contacted more than 4 million voters via phone calls or home visits – a number most Senate campaigns don't reach until late October, if at all, Green said.

Mason Stalder and Olivia Smith, volunteers with U.S. Sen. Rob Portman's re-election campaign, conduct a survey with Sue Minor of Upper Arlington about which issues she cares the most about in the 2016 election. Portman volunteers going door-to-door use an app on their phones that tells them which houses to hit, gives them questions to ask, and allows them to instantly submit information they collect.Jeremy Pelzer, cleveland.com 

On a sunny September afternoon, Portman volunteers Mason Stalder and Olivia Smith went door-to-door in the well-to-do Columbus suburb of Upper Arlington.

The pair, like most canvassers this election, uses a phone app to see which houses they need to hit on a given day.

Each time someone answered the door, Stalder and Smith had a list of questions pulled up: Which candidate do you support? Which issues do you care the most about? Do you want a yard sign? Each answer is registered in the app to add to the voter database.

If a name on the list isn't home, the app even tells them which pamphlet to leave: a Portman biographical flier, or one that both touts Portman and attacks Strickland.

But Portman has had to work hard to build up his tech game because he's playing catch-up: Democrats started using microtargeting far earlier than Republicans, giving Strickland a leg up, as he has more information to work with and more experienced staffers to employ.

Strickland's campaign uses top-of-the-line technology that's similar to what Portman's campaign uses, said Rebecca Pearcey, his campaign manager.

Pearcey said their databases and analytics programs make voter outreach much more efficient than 15 years ago, when campaigns would just buy ads and hope they resonated with the right people.

"We're knowing where to go and what to talk to folks about, versus knocking on every door, talking to every person, figuring out what they like, figuring out who they like, coming back to the office, distill all of that, and get back out there and do it again," Pearcey said.


Online ads

Both campaigns have been at the forefront of online ads for a number of reasons: they're cheaper, they reach younger voters who have stopped watching TV, and they can be more easily tailored to specific audiences.

A Rob Portman geofilter on Snapchat.Portman for Senate 

Portman's campaign was the first Senate campaign in the country to purchase Snapchat "geofilters," which allow users to send pictures overlaid with various graphics supporting him.

Lee Dunn, head of elections at Google, said Portman's campaign has been unusually proficient at using online ads because it created a lot of different types of well-made ads and matched them with the audience that would be most interested in it.

"They speak to what voters are looking to learn," Dunn said.

Strickland's campaign, meanwhile, was the first Senate campaign to use YouTube "bumper" ads – 6-second spots that run before YouTube videos and can't be skipped.

He's also one of the first Senate candidates to air ads on Pandora, a music streaming site, and was among the first to use Google's "issue position" search feature –for instance, when people google "Ted Strickland position on guns," they'll see a popup detailing his policy positions.

"It is just such a much more efficient way than you did it even 15-20 years ago where you're just putting up an ad and hoping for the best," Pearcey said.

Our editors found this article on this site using Google and regenerated it for our readers.

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