The Voter File
When many first-time political candidates start running for office, they are like a deer in headlights. Some can afford to hire a consultant or have political knowledge themselves, but many simply grab a voter file of elections and start knocking on doors. This strategy may win you a race if you’re running against a lazy or inept opponent, but against most competitors it’s a guaranteed waste of time.
This post is meant to help first-time politicians, political campaign managers, and political sciencestudents get a better understanding of some basic ways to score a voter file to better optimize your time for success.
Where do I get a voter file and what technology do I use?
First things first, there are a ton of voter files out there. The most common source is your State Board of Election where one can be had for a relatively reasonable rate. Many Democrats though will turn to NGP VAN and many Republicans will turn to GOP Data Center. Other political technologies that are quite popular include i-360, Voter Gravity, Aristotle, and NationBuilder. Most technology vendors tend to serve either progressives or conservatives, so keep that in mind when evaluating your options.
Being a Republican and NationBuilder Certified Architect, my favorite option is NationBuilder. For any race that’s smaller than a state-wide, NationBuilder includes a free voter file that’s regularly updated with voter information, demographics, voting history, and contact information. NationBuilder also has API integrations with a number of companies that can help make life easier including Accurate Append and FieldEdge. Many Republican state parties also have contracts with NationBuilder, so if you are working on a campaign, I would recommend reaching out to them to see if you can secure a discount. My recommendation to Republicans and Democrats who want to use NationBuilder is to import data from Data Center or NGPVAN to help augment your file. Both parties tend to have useful information in their files like voters who have stances on certain issues (Pro-Life, Pro-Gun, Environment, etc), but they also have questionable upkeep practices. As a result, it’s optimal to start with your own clean file and build it from there. Unfortunately from personal experience, I have seen instances where dead voters are included in the Data Center file, and many new voters were not.
I have a good voter file, now how do I filter it?
Warning in advance: This is going to be a fairly basic example of making a general population list. There are many more advanced methods to targeting voters based on location, issues, household wealth, etc. I may go into those at a later time.
Cutting to the chase, at the most basic level, you want to target everyone who might vote. Based on the NationBuilder priority system, I score voters on a scale of 1-5 based on their likelihood to vote. To mentally process scoring voters, think of defining who you want to target in “IF”, “AND”, and “OR” functions. For example, IF a voter has voter has voted in this election or that election THEN they receive “X” score. By setting parameters that define each voter, it makes it a lot easier to score them. Here are the different levels of voter and the parameters I personally use when looking at scoring a voter file (not considering other factors):
5 Star Voter
A 5-star voter is someone who votes all the time. They never take an election off and you can count on them to show up. They are often people who are much more likely to volunteer and/or donate to a campaign. Messages targeted at these voters are typically around finding the issues they care about, and if they’re favorable to your message, getting take the next step. The next step is helping the campaign whether that be by putting a sign in their yard, canvassing fellow voters, or donating.
Here is the single parameter that I use to identify 5-star voters:
IF Voter has voted in most recent Primary and General AND the Primary and General Election prior to that.
This is rather short compared to most other voters, but that’s because it’s includes strict criteria that only a small portion of registered voters typically reach. NationBuilder has some very nifty filtering features to help identify these voters. Here’s a screenshot of one filter that can be used:
From there, you can click “Actions” and add all of these voters to a List. Once they’re in a list, you can Batch Update the list to assign a “Priority Level” value to all voters in the list. In this case, you would be assigning the value of “5”. This is useful for later on as in your database, priority level is one element that is quickly visible when searching through voters. Here’s a screenshot of what the batch update screen looks like:
Once you confirm the batch update and let it go through, congratulations you’ve scored your first batch of voters! You can use this same method to define the 1-4 star voters as well.
4 Star Voter
4-star voters are still very strong voters, but they aren’t as likely to vote in primaries as 5-star voters. In general, these are usually your voters who vote in every general election and some primaries. As a simple parameter, I have:
IF Voter has voted in 3 most recent General elections AND at least one of the last 3 Primary elections.
Here’s what that looks like on a filtering screen:
3 Star Voter
3-star voters are typically people you can count on to vote in a general election, but they do occasionally miss some elections. I would call these folks 50+% voters as they are more likely to vote than not, but they aren’t a guarantee. Filtering for a 3-star voter is a little more complex as it needs to include all variables that wouldn’t be included in a 2 or 4-star voter. Here are the parameters for 3-star voters:
IF Voter has voted in most recent General election OR Voter has voted in the 2 elections prior to that
To explain it more plainly, let’s say you’re running a Virginia State House race in 2017. Your parameter would be IF Voter voted in 2015 election OR voted in 2016 and 2013 election. This would gather voters who are typically voters, but may not have voted in the last election. Filtering is a little complicated for this one as you need to ensure you aren’t overwriting former priority lists. This is why I’d recommend starting with 5-star voters and going from there. Here’s what the filtering screen looks like:
2 Star Voter
2-star voters have voted in the past, but they typically do not vote. These voters are generally not the people you target unless they are already a supporter or are somehow closely connected to a strong supporter. These are the people who Obama turned out in great numbers to help notch his win in 2008. I would not include these voters in any major advertising efforts, but they are good for one-to-one canvassing if you believe they are very likely to vote for your campaign if they actually vote. The parameter for these voters is fairly simple:
IF Voter has voted in one of the past 4 elections AND Priority level is less than 3
Here’s a screenshot that shows this filter:
1 Star Voter
These people never vote and generally are where a lot of campaigns who don’t know what they’re doing waste their time and money. In general, you could target these people many times and they still will not vote. Now, that’s not to say you can’t get really creative and try to target people who have a close relationship with a supporter or find some other really good reason to reach out to them. My suggestion though in general is NOT TO. Many people in the voter file who are 1-star voters moved out of the area or passed away. Here’s the parameter for 1-star voters:
IF Voter has not voted in any of the past 4 elections AND Could Vote Status is YES
Occasionally voter databases will have non-voter donors or supporters, so it’s important to include the “Could Vote” parameter. Here’s a screenshot of what this filter looks like in NationBuilder:
An unfortunate reality of all voter files is that dead voters are not scrubbed effectively. Parameters must be set up to ensure efforts are not spent on these voters. All voters who are presumed to be dead should be listed as 1-star voters or removed from the file altogether. Generally, I’d recommend assigning all of these voters a 1 priority. Thankfully NationBuilder does not have this issue as much as other voter file providers, but it’s still something to keep in mind. Here are the parameters I use to define presumed deceased voters:
IF Voter has not voted in the last two General or Primary elections AND Age is 80 or older AND Registered to vote more than two years ago
Here’s a screenshot in NationBuilder for how this filter works:
New voters are a hot topic for the media as the term is typically associated with the “youth vote.” While it’s true that many new voters are 18-year-olds, there are also “new voters” who are not really new. People move all the time and those voters are new to your file. It’s important to go back after assigning priorities and re-assign new voters. Those voters do not have a voter history, so typically they would be a 1-star voter. In reality, they are people you want to target since they took the effort to register to vote recently.
I would recommend assigning all new voters the priority of “3” as they should be targeted as part of most major GOTV efforts. Sometimes updated registrations are treated as “New,” so it’s important to avoid overwriting 4 or 5 star voters who merely updated their registration. Here’re the parameters for new voters:
IF Voter has registered after the last election held AND Has Not Voted in the past 2 elections.
Here’s a screenshot in NationBuilder of the filter:
I have a scored voter file, now what voters do I target?
This is the easy part! Now that you have a filtered voter, you can pick out which voters to target. I would recommend targeting all 3+ Star voters. Typically this is 45-55% of the entire voter file. Just by scoring your file, you’ve just halved the number of voters you need to reach out to. Of course, there are more advanced microtargeting strategies that can be used like:
IF Voter is 3+ Star priority AND Party Registration is not Republican AND Voter Issue includes Pro-Gun OR Pro-Life OR Anti-Taxes
This would be a filter used to target potential swing voters in a general election. In a future post, I will go through other potentially useful filters, how to acquire the data needed for those filters, and how to effectively message to those voters.
Have your own method for basic voter file scoring? Feel free to respond in the comment box below.
Need Political Consulting?
Do you need help with a political campaign? Feel free to reach out to me at patrick [at] patrickokeefe.org . I am a certified NationBuilder Architect who has managed a campaign for a winning, first-time candidate.