MANCHESTER, N.H. — Walking the snowy streets of Manchester, New Hampshire, Ryan McKnight is part of the quadrennial ritual of knocking on doors to convince primary voters to support a candidate, in this case Republican Ted Cruz. But McKnight represents a new breed of political canvasser, armed with a phone app that tells him what talking points are likely to work with the person on the other side of the door.
McKnight’s app, built by data firm i360 tells him which houses have persuadable voters and what issues those voters might care about. The Koch brothers, billionaire conservative campaign activists and donors, own the company.
“It’s not exactly everyone’s favorite thing to do to go talk to strangers,” said Chris Wilson, director of research and analytics for the Cruz campaign. “When they go to a door they’ll know how likely the person is to support Senator Cruz, what issues they’re going to care about, so the volunteer is able to approach that door with a certain level of confidence.”
The campaign, like most others, is running a complex data and technology operation to effectively reach out to potential voters on the ground in the days before the New Hampshire primary.
In the past, campaigns used data to target precincts or neighborhoods but with more data comes the ability to target individuals. Using the data for targeted online advertising will be important later in the election, but in the early primary states, knocking on doors can have a big impact.
“Digital is going to grow,” said Pete Kavanaugh, the New Hampshire state director for the Obama campaign in 2012. “But field operations work. It’s the most effective thing you can do. There’s a reason people have been doing it for hundreds of years.”
In 2012, Republicans were faulted for lagging behind President Barack Obama’s cutting edge data team. This cycle, GOP strategists like Wilson are trying to close that gap.
They seem to be succeeding.
“It’s something that it’s not only going to rival the infrastructure of the 2012 Obama campaign, but that the technology has advanced so much that it’s something that can actually propel the entire party forward,” said Vincent Harris, a Republican digital strategist.
The Cruz data whizzes feed their volunteers on the streets different scripts based on what they know about who lives in each house. The app uses information about issue preferences and personalities to optimize interactions between canvassers and voters.
The i360 app also powers the campaign’s “Phone from Home” program, which lets volunteers call voters using the same personalized scripts.
The Cruz campaign and others use data to build models predicting how voters will behave on Election Day.
But the Cruz campaign also tracks personality on five psychographic axes: openness, conscientiousness, agreeability, neurosis and extroversion. The campaign can tailor volunteers scripts to best fit the type of person they are talking to.
The data team doesn’t stop at tracking potential voters, it also tracks Cruz volunteers.
An app called Cruz’s Crew seeks to “gamify” volunteers’ activities. They win points for sharing information on Facebook, donating money and calling potential voters.
Nearly 25 percent of the Cruz campaign’s 200,000 volunteers have downloaded the Cruz’s Crew app, Wilson said.
“It’s allowed us to bring together volunteers no matter where they might be,” Wilson said.
All the data — from both apps — is stored in a central database so the campaign knows which of its volunteers have made calls, sent tweets and knocked on doors.
“The majority of campaigns don’t have every type of voter contact integrated back into one central database,” said Harris, who ran Cruz’s digital strategy for three years before working for Rand Paul this primary cycle.
“Right now the Cruz campaign is the only one that can scale quickly to actually take on whatever the Democrats have been doing from a digital perspective,” he said.
Across the country, that digital operation should see volunteers like McKnight heading to more and more houses.
But McKnight, a 34-year-old lawyer from Houston, doesn’t see the complex infrastructure powering the i360 app. It just points him to the next house.
“All I know is I’m going to knock on this guy’s door and hope that he’s happy to see me,” said McKnight.