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RNC touts voter data system in place for 2018 Minnesota midterms

Representatives of the Republican National Committee are touting the prowess of their voter data analytics program--they say it could turn Minnesota red as it has Wisconsin, Michigan and other former Democratic strongholds, and they've got result...

Voters cast their ballots Tuesday in the Pillager School Media Center on a referendum to issue general obligation school building bonds for $13,2000,000. The bonds would be used to build an auditorium addition, early childhood and elementary classroom additions, and improvements to classrooms and exterior of the buildings. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
RNC representatives stopped by Brainerd to tout the National Voter Scores Program and its prior success in Wisconsin, Michigan and other states. Now it's coming to Minnesota. Brainerd Dispatch file photo
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Representatives of the Republican National Committee are touting the prowess of their voter data analytics program-they say it could turn Minnesota red as it has Wisconsin, Michigan and other former Democratic strongholds, and they've got results to show for it.

Since 2014, the GOP has invested more than $250 million and counting into their National Voter Scores Program-a behemoth of data gathering and analysis, dealing in 260 million voters and billions of data points.

In a sit-down with the Dispatch Wednesday, July 25, the RNC director of turnout and targeting, Brian Parnitzke, said the program's value lies in its ability to accurately identify voter trends and predict how elections will play out. This has been proven at every level of federal elections, he said, all the way up to the presidency itself.

"It's predictive analytics," Parnitzke said. "It's designed not only to be predictive, but prescriptive as well-so, it's able to say, 'You're at 48 (percent approval), you need 3 points to get 51,' but it also tells you how to get those 3 points."

The National Voter Scores Program represents a combination of voter information and consumer media data, Parnitzke said. It's formed on a foundation of surveys, then by scouring publicly available voter records. This base is then augmented, fleshed out and sharpened through consumer data, much of it mined from social media usage. The RNC contracts with private consumer data vendors to acquire this consumer data.

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Through these means, the RNC can access and analyze a host of factors to determine a person's interests, values, habits, material possessions-more than 3,100 points of consumer data for each person painting a detailed socioeconomic picture of who they are.

"My wife is a 20-something white female living in northern Virginia-those three factors push her to the left. They make her look, a fair amount, like a Democrat, " Parnitzke said. "However, also through our consumer data we know she is married and she subscribes to Garden & Gun magazine. We consider the other three factors along with this. This means the three variables are seen in a new light. All together, it actually pushes her to the right."

Armed with this information, the RNC can give a surgical precision to its ground approach-campaign calls, flyers and door-to-door neighborhood activism, Parnitzke said. Typically, this information is withheld during the primaries-the time during which inter-party rivalries are settled-before access to the National Voter Scores Program and its assets are granted to whomever emerges as the Republican nominee. This is often up to local party leadership.

Unlike prior voter data systems utilized by the Democrats or Republicans, the National Voter Scores Program is continually updated and reconfigured, Parnitzke said, which means it continues to retain its value from election to election.

As such, much of the system's success in 2016 can be traced to information it gathered in 2014, Parnitzke said, which in turn will influence its ability to assess the political climate in 2018, 2020 and beyond. It builds upon prior work.

Passing the test

The National Voter Scores Program found its genesis in 2012, in the wake of Barack Obama's victory over Mitt Romney-an election lost in part, Parnitzke said, as a result of Obama's beefier, more modern voter data system at the time.

"We took a good hard look at what caused us to lose in that race," Parnitzke said. "So we commissioned what is called the Growth and Opportunity Project and looked at what we needed to improve. One of the items is that we're getting beaten on the ground in field operations and we're getting beaten in terms of data."

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While the Republican Party committed to the program by spending hundreds of millions, originally there was a lot of skepticism-it wasn't tested or verified to be effective, Parnitzke said, and there were internal divisions, GOP chapters and candidates who weren't sold on what the program entailed.

Then came the 2014 midterms-a watershed moment when the effectiveness of the revamped election machine proved itself in the age of Obama. This was characterized, Parnitzke said, by the campaign of Sen. Thom Tillis, R-South Carolina. Going in, the Republican candidate was trailing in virtually every public poll and traditional metric-except for the RNC data. Tillis would go on to win over incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan by about 1.5 percent.

With 2016 looming on the calendar, party leaders opted for a system that worked for any GOP candidate, in any race, in any state, Parnitzke said. This stood in stark contrast to the Democrats, he noted, who crafted a system built around a single candidate-Barack Obama-which couldn't function properly for later presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, or for lesser seats throughout the country.

"When Donald Trump came along-in Hillary Clinton's words-he inherited a strong, robust data program while she inherited nothing," Parnitzke said. "The DNC data was ranging between poor and nonexistent."

In its finest hour, the program helped tip four crucial states in the 2016 presidential election-Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida and Pennsylvania-evidenced, Parnitzke said, by the program's ability to predict voter turnout. For example, in Michigan it predicted within 1 percent and the margin of victory within 2 one-hundredths of a percent.

By specifically targeting voters in those states who disagreed with Obama's policies, but had stated support for Clinton, the GOP was able to sway enough votes in Trump's favor to win these four states and garner an electoral college victory, Parnitzke said, even while Clinton won 2.86 million more popular votes.

In short, these victories were largely made possible by the National Voter Scores Program, and without these victories, Trump would not be the leader of the United States.

On the horizon

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Minnesota stands as a point of focus, a true-blue state that hasn't elected a GOP candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972-though it nearly backed Trump in 2016, Parnitzke said, falling short by about 1.5 percent.

There are some obstacles unique to Minnesota, Parnitzke said-notably, Minnesotans do not file for party registration, which eliminates a significant chunk of voter information these political data systems depend on to narrow their focus. Irrespective of the state's largely liberal past, that's a complication to contend with.

However, there are indications-aside from Trump's strong showing in 2016-the state may take a distinct red shift in coming years, Parnitzke said, whether it's a marked increase in GOP state lawmakers in 2014 as a result of the gay marriage issue, or the tenuous hold of Democrats in longtime conservative-heavy districts including Rick Nolan, Tim Walz and Collin Peterson (with the former two leaving their seats in runs for state executive roles).

"I think Minnesota could be the next domino to fall in the Upper Midwest," said Parnitzke, who cited data indicating there may be a backlash to Democratic politicians who oppose Trump. "I think if you're an incumbent Democrat, you should be wary of that. They've got a tightrope to walk trying to make sure they're not merely obstructionists for the sake of obstructionism."

However, even if some districts in the state are flipped, the RNC is realistic about the future of Congress going into the 2018 midterms.

"We recognize this is a historically tough year for Republicans," Parnitzke said. "History says, in terms of norms for the party in power, we should lose the House this year. ... It's easier to vote against something, then to vote for something."

Related Topics: ELECTION 2016
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