In the provincial election last spring, the B.C. NDP dabbled with a new micro-targeting system designed to identify supporters and donors.
In his postmortem, campaign manager Brian Topp observed that the data management program didn’t actually get voters to the polls: “It is more than a little depressing to compare the ‘marks’ we recorded in target ridings through these well-designed and impressive systems,” he wrote, “to the actual turnout.”
Which is a bit of a flaw, really. There is nothing terribly impressive about campaign data that doesn’t translate into votes. Yet it has drawn scant attention as the New Democrats sift through the reasons for their election loss.
NDP MLA Bruce Ralston is trying to change that. Using a substantial infusion of his own money, he has established a new research and training centre to develop and teach the science of not just finding those “marks,” but getting them into a polling booth on election day.
The Winch Institute, modelled on tactics developed by the Obama Democrats in the United States, is meant to be a “Victory Lab North” for progressive parties.
Mr. Ralston, in his typically understated way, has done little to draw attention to his efforts. He deflects questions about how much he has invested in the project. Working outside of the B.C. NDP, he has drawn together a group of campaign veterans and data geeks from labour and municipal politics.
Like the Democrats’ Victory Lab, the effort is driven by an unexpected electoral loss. For the Democrats, it began with John Kerry’s failed presidential campaign in 2004. Out of that emerged a new breed of analysts who were not driven by polling or past voting history. They crunched socioeconomic statistics to search out potential new voters. They played with algorithms to fine-tune voter predictions.
They invested in strategic field organizing informed by an understanding of who needed a human connection at the doorstep to persuade them to make that trip to the polling station.
George Medairy played a role in crafting the data infrastructure that led to victory for the Democrats in the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. He is an adviser to the Winch Institute, helping pare down the lessons from a campaign geared for 200 million voters to something that will help on the civic, provincial and federal levels in Canada.
“The lessons are the same, regardless of scale,” he said in an interview. “It’s using more analytical evidence to figure out who to talk to, to measure our efficiency in who we communicate with.”
Mr. Medairy is currently working at the campaign headquarters of Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who is running to be the next governor of Virginia. Mr. Medairy’s job has him tracking everything that happens in the campaign, weaving it a database that helps frame how the campaign team communicates. At its core, it’s about identifying persuadable voters, and engaging them.
“In 2012, we had a huge focus on voter registration – that’s something that Democrats have put their money behind. And it’s something I feel good about.”
The first trial for the Winch Institute will likely be B.C.’s municipal elections on Nov. 15. Vision Vancouver city councillor Andrea Reimer is a board member of the Winch Institute. “I guess you would label me as one of the politicians in the group, but we’re all data and policy geeks,” she said. “I’ve always had a keen interest in organizing – to hear my mother tell it, I was organizing in preschool.”
Ms. Reimer sees a chronic gap between progressive parties and their opponents on the right when it comes to sophisticated data management. Did the B.C. NDP campaign miss out on something that could have closed the four-point gap on May 14? She won’t say. Except to note that the local (and successful) campaign she worked on, for New Democrat George Heyman, ignored the central campaign’s data and ran its own program.
For his part, Mr. Ralston doesn’t want to suggest that the NDP might have won the election had the central campaign spent more time in the data mines. “I don’t want to overstate the importance, it’s part of the solution,” he said. But he does wonder aloud whether, in some of the tighter races, a more sophisticated effort could have made a difference.
And, he maintains he’s not doing an end-run around his party. “We are not trying to supplant the role of the political organization, we are a supplement.” But so far, with this exception, the New Democrats seem to have invested more time in recriminations than constructive solutions.