Data mining key to winning elections

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What most voters do not realize, is that the real targeting work is done long before anyone ever knocks on your door. Data mining permits political campaigns to dig deeply and understand exactly what each individual voter wants.


First published on April 2, 2018 in The Hill Times.


OTTAWA—Data mining is the key to election wins.

The more tools at your disposal, the easier it is to target volunteer efforts in the most efficient manner.

The 21st century reality for political parties is that the pool of volunteers, primarily non-working women, is shrinking and the way we reach voters is changing.

Any political party worth their salt is going to utilize all tools at their disposal to outsmart the opposition.

Most observers in Ontario are writing Kathleen Wynne off. But don’t jump too quickly to the conclusion that her days as premier are over.

The Ontario Liberals have a finely honed, micro-targeting machine, and every promise they roll out is designed to identify that base, and grow it where possible.

Last week’s announcement of universal access to child care for all kids once they reach the age of two-and-a-half directly appeals to more than 100,000 parents and child-care workers.

For families, the announcement represents an estimated savings of $15,000 a year. Since the premier specified the offer includes only licensed child-care centres, it also targets child-care operators and employees.

Couple that with the Liberal plan to increase the minimum wage again next January and you have a very good idea of which voters are being targeted by Wynne’s team. Both policies widen the swathe of potential support for the Liberals.

The minimum wage hike targets potential swing voters away from the New Democratic Party.

Those on the Liberal left, who support the fair wage campaign, include unions and social advocates who fight for the working poor.

Many of those would align naturally with the NDP. However, if the race unfolds as a two-way fight, they will not want to risk the hard-fought minimum wage gains to a right-wing government that could roll it back.

You can already see the Liberal ads, focused on pushing Doug Ford over into an ever smaller corner of supporters based on his own core vote.

Wynne is also going straight for the suburban soccer mom, who loves the idea that child care is universally available. That demographic is usually on the centre-right of the spectrum. Her family does not want to pay higher taxes, but she considers universally accessible child care an investment in children, not a tax grab. Seniors definitely do not share her passion for universality.

The promise unveiled last week reminds voters that it was the Liberals who introduced the wildly successful full-day junior kindergarten program which has already involved considerable child care savings for young, two-earner families. Wynne does not have to look far to find out who will support the child-care expansion plan.

Her election team is already equipped with packages designed to regurgitate to voters exactly what the Grit polling teams have identified as their key campaign concerns.

The roll-out is micro-targeted, to the point where on a single street, canvassers will have their choice of three or four brochures to give out.

If they are knocking on a senior’s door, the information will target health care and retirement concerns. They certainly will not be trumpeting universal child care because that could turn off older voters who figure they should not have to support someone else’s child rearing costs when no one did it for them.

What most voters do not realize, is that the real targeting work is done long before anyone ever knocks on your door. Data mining permits political campaigns to dig deeply and understand exactly what each individual voter wants.

A good campaign will even drill down to different voters within a single household. Many city dwellers split political allegiance among multiple parties.

In the last two elections, the Ontario voter turnout was the worst in history. Half of eligible voters do not even show up. So a smart data-based voter strategy will definitely pick the winner.

Conservatives will use the same strategies to identify their supporters and get them to the polls. Evangelical voters opposed to sex education are particularly committed and will swell the ranks of Tory volunteers so crucial in voter identification.

But the number of Ontarians who will choose their premier on that issue is minimal. Ford’s challenge will be to broaden his appeal and expand the pool of eligible support.

The Ontario election outcome depends on knowing where your support is and making sure they vote.

No matter what grilling may be dished out to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in Washington, political data mining is here to stay.

It wins elections.

Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.