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The big-data secret behind Bernie Sanders’s massive campaign rallies

Bernie Sanders at Portland rally

Bernie 2016/YouTube

The modern campaign rally is all about gathering your data.

On Friday, an estimated 15,000 supporters of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders packed Safeco Field, the home of the Seattle Mariners, for a massive campaign rally. The next day, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist trounced former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Washington state Democratic presidential primary by a 45-point margin.

To even a casual observer, those two events are clearly related. However, the way in which Sanders’s electoral success is related to his ability to draw large crowds represents something fundamentally different from when, for example, then-Sen. Barack Obama drew tens of thousands of cheering supporters to a gigantic 2008 rally in Portland.

Eight years ago, and for most of American political history, campaign rallies were primarily about getting media attention and firing up your supporters to get out and vote. While that’s still true, this election cycle has seen a minor revolution in how campaigns conceive of live events. Just like when you log onto Facebook or plot your next road trip on Google Maps, the modern campaign rally is all about gathering your data.

“Suddenly, they could attach a value to each of the people who attend these rallies. For a campaign, that’s like liquid gold.”

One of the companies leading this change is the online ticketing firm Eventbrite. A survey released on Wednesday morning, conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of Eventbrite, found that nearly one-fifth of Americans reported having attended a political event in the past 12 months, and three-quarters said attending that event made them more inclined to take action in support of that candidate—whether it be talking to family and friends about the candidate, donating, volunteering to knock on doors and participating in phone banks, or even just showing up at their polling place on election day.

The survey’s age demographics are revealing. Despite the perception of millennials as clicktavists who are only comfortable mobilizing behind Twitter hashtags, young adults made up nearly half of all event goers. They were actually more likely than the general population to report being inspired by attending a political event to volunteer, donate, or post positively about a campaign on social media.

Chad Barth, who runs the politics and government business at Eventbrite, remembers the first political events he helped organize back in 2000 as a campaign operative for the Republican Party of Iowa. Tickets to events were things campaign staffers would “make down at Kinko’s” a couple days before the rally, Barth said. Most of the time, the names and personal information of attendees wouldn’t be recorded or, if they were, it would scribbled down on a clipboard and maybe later entered onto an Excel spreadsheet the following week.

Barth joined Eventbrite in 2011. The following year, the company approached the campaigns of both Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney with an offer: Run ticketing for a few of your events through our system. Only the former Massachusetts governor took Barth up on the offer, but it quickly paid dividends.

In 2012, the Romney team pegged the value of the email address of a supporter at $17 based on potential donations and volunteer opportunities. While the Eventbrite tickets were still free, the campaign required all attendees to enter their personal info to get the ticket. The email addresses obtained from the rallies, as it turned out, were far more valuable than those gathered through the campaign website. The average donation from an event attendee: $73.

The Romney team started using online ticketing for every event and, by the end of the 2012 election cycle, the campaign had collected user data it valued at over $7 million—money that would have otherwise slipped through the cracks. 

“Suddenly, they could attach a value to each of the people who attend these rallies. For a campaign, that’s like liquid gold. It’s massive,” Barth said. “Meanwhile, down the road, President Obama is doing an event and nobody has any clue as to how many people are going to show up because they’ve given out all these paper tickets.”

Four years later, every presidential campaign—not to mention thousands of down-ballot races around the country—have stopped taking the data-gathering potential of live events for granted. Virtually every GOP presidential candidate uses (or used, as the case may be) Eventbrite, and their opponents across the aisle employ similar systems developed by left-leaning firms available only to Democrats.

Like most—if not all—other campaigns, the Sanders campaign directly collects names, phone numbers, email addresses, and zip codes of anyone who signs up for an event through the candidate’s website.

The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Barth noted that collecting data through online ticketing instead of at the entrance to an event allows campaigns to collect data even when people flake. The attrition rate for free events, both campaign-related and apolitical, averages at about 40 percent, according to Eventbrite. By collecting potential attendees’ information ahead of time, campaigns can gather more data—but they can also see who was dedicated enough to actually show up versus those who only spent a minute signing up online, another incredibly useful data point in determining someone’s overall level of support.

The combination of assessing someone’s passion for the candidate and knowing precisely what they’re experiencing at a given moment provides a wealth of opportunities for a campaign. 

“To know that someone stood in line for two hours … [campaigns can] flip that around to give them a call to action while they’re waiting for the event to start through geo-location text message targeting,” Barth said. “Or follow up with them immediately after they left through targeted email. Or asking them to do a call-to-action to call five of their friends. Or to donate. Or go door-knocking.”

While attending a campaign event is an important way to get supporters into a campaign’s system, at the end of the day, it’s ultimately going to be just another data point in a potential voter’s larger profile. For example, data collected from Eventbrite can be synced with a user’s Facebook page, which contains a wealth of personal information useful to campaigns—including, crucially, someone’s profile picture.

Jim Gilliam, founder of the political campaign data-management software provider NationBuilder, explained that, despite living in an age when big data is supposed to mine enormous quantities of information out of seemingly disconnected data, one of the most important aspects of the new wave of campaign data collection is using pictures pulled from social media accounts to facilitate a human connection between campaign workers and voters. Gilliam noted that, when campaign staffers or volunteers are making calls to voters, simply being able to look at the someone’s Facebook profile picture or Twitter avatar goes a long way toward establishing a genuine connection. Not only does that connection drive better engagement with voters, but it also makes the often monotonous and thankless task of phone banking more interesting, which decreases volunteer burnout.

The level of importance modern campaigns attach to this type of data can be found in a pair of recent intra-party conflicts among Democrats about access to the party’s centralized database of voter information maintained through a private contractor called NGP VAN.

Last week, Tim Canova, who is challenging Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz for her seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, made national headlines when the Florida Democratic Party, which controls access to the NGP VAN candidates in the state, denied Canova the ability to use the system. “It’s quite clear to anybody who has run elections or studied the process that the VAN voter database and software is very key to this,” Canova told the Daily Dot. 

The controversy swirling around the decision to restrict NGP VAN access to incumbents quickly triggered the state party to change course and issue a one-time exemption to Canova. Nevertheless, Canova—who, it should be noted, got a lot of publicity out of his fight with a powerful, not to mention controversial, party official—asserted his access to this data was crucial to his ability to even being mounting a successful challenge.

“We’re spinning our wheels to find an alternative, although none of the alternatives are ideal,” Canova said before his campaign had access to the database. “They’re all second-best solutions, you can say. It is hampering us, you can’t deny it.”

A few months prior to the Canova episode, a technical error by NGP VAN allowed staffers on the Sanders campaign to access voter data that belonged to the Clinton campaign. The Sanders campaign notified the proper authorities about the breach, but not before poking around a bit. One of the searches they conducted was looking at a list of Clinton supporters that the former secretary of state’s campaign believed could be convinced to vote for her primary opponent if the correct pressure were applied. For either campaign, that’s an incredibly important dataset to have.

“Millennials are not as interested in collecting things as they are in collecting experiences.”

The DNC, led by Wasserman Shultz, cut off the Sanders campaign’s access to the NGP VAN as punishment. Telling Bloomberg Politics that losing access to the data was “grinding our campaign to a halt,” Sanders’s campaign manager Tad Devine charged that it was costing the campaign $600,000 day.

While Sanders’s access was restored in a couple days, the campaign is still suing the DNC for breach of contract.

The lesson here is that, in many ways, voter data is has quickly become the lifeblood of political campaigns. As millennials become a lager share of the electorate, the data collected from in-person events will only become more important.

“Millennials are not as interested in collecting things as they are in collecting experiences,” Barth said. “You’re seeing so much of the younger generation wanting to be at these political events in person and have an experience with like-minded people, people that have the same passions … that they do and using that as a launching point to get into the political process.”

“There’s always the talk about the importance of using big data and social media,” he added, “but it’s really that offline engagement aspect that is the truly important … part of what a campaign really needs to be able to do.”

Correction: The Seattle Mariners play at Safeco Field, while the Seattle Seahawks play at CenturyLink Field. We regret the error.

Screencap via Bernie 2016/YouTube

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin

Aaron Sankin is a former Senior Staff Writer at the Daily Dot who covered the intersection of politics, technology, online privacy, Twitter bots, and the role of dank memes in popular culture. He lives in Seattle, Washington. He joined the Center for Investigative Reporting in 2016.