Strategists affiliated with the campaigns of President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney say they have access to information about the personal lives of voters at a scale never before imagined. And they are using that data to try to influence voting habits -- in effect, to train voters to go the polls through subtle cues, rewards and threats in a manner akin
to the marketing efforts of credit card companies and big-box retailers.
In the weeks before Election Day, millions of voters will hear from callers with surprisingly detailed knowledge of their lives. These callers -- friends of friends or long-lost work colleagues -- will identify themselves as volunteers for the campaigns or independent political groups.
The callers will be guided by scripts and call lists compiled by people -- or computers -- with access to details like whether voters may have visited pornography websites, have homes in foreclosure, are more prone to drink Michelob Ultra than Corona, or have gay friends or enjoy expensive vacations.
The callers are likely to ask detailed question about how the voters plan to spend Election Day, according to professionals with both presidential campaigns. What time will they vote? What route will they drive to the polls? Simply asking such questions, experiments show, is likely to increase turnout.
After these conversations, when those targeted voters open their mailboxes or check their Facebook profiles, they may find that someone has divulged specifics about how frequently they and their neighbors have voted in the past. Calling out people for not voting, what experts term "public shaming," can prod someone to cast a ballot.
Even as campaigns embrace this ability to know so much more about voters, they recognize the risks associated with intruding into the lives of people who have long expected that the privacy of the voting booth extends to their homes.
"You don't want your analytical efforts to be obvious because voters get creeped out," said a Romney campaign official who was not authorized to speak to a reporter. "A lot of what we're doing is behind the scenes."
In statements, both campaigns emphasized their dedication to voters' privacy.
"We are committed to protecting individual privacy at every turn -- adhering to industry best practices on privacy and going above and beyond what's required by law," said Adam Fetcher, an Obama campaign spokesman.
Ryan Williams, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, said: "The Romney campaign respects the privacy rights of all Americans. We are committed to ensuring that all of our voter outreach is governed by the highest ethical standards."
In interviews, however, consultants to both campaigns said they had bought demographic data from companies that study details like voters' shopping histories, gambling tendencies, interest in get-rich-quick schemes, dating preferences and financial problems. The campaigns themselves, according to campaign employees, have examined voters' online exchanges and social networks to see what they care about and whom they know. They have also authorized tests to see if, say, a phone call from a distant cousin or a new friend would be more likely to prompt the urge to cast a ballot.
The campaigns have planted software known as cookies on voters' computers to see if they frequent evangelical or erotic websites for clues to their moral perspectives. Voters who visit religious websites might be greeted with religion-friendly messages when they return to mittromney.com or barackobama.com. The campaigns' consultants have run experiments to determine if embarrassing someone for not voting by sending letters to their neighbors or posting their voting histories online is effective.
"I've had half-a-dozen conversations with third parties who are wondering if this is the year to start shaming," said one consultant who works closely with Democratic organizations. "Obama can't do it. But the super PACs are anonymous. They don't have to put anything on the flier to let the voter know who to blame."
While the campaigns say they do not buy data that they consider intrusive, the Democratic and Republican National Committees combined have spent at least $13 million this year on data acquisition and related services. The parties have paid companies like Acxiom, Experian and Equifax, which are currently subjects of congressional scrutiny over privacy concerns.
Consultants to the presidential campaigns said in interviews that their businesses had bought data from Rapleaf or Intelius, companies that have been sued over alleged privacy or consumer protection violations.
Officials at both campaigns say the most insightful data remains the basics: a voter's party affiliation, voting history, basic information like age and race, and preferences gleaned from one-on-one conversations with volunteers. But more subtle data mining has helped the Obama campaign learn that their supporters often eat at Red Lobster, shop at Burlington Coat Factory and listen to smooth jazz. Romney backers are more likely to drink Samuel Adams beer, eat at Olive Garden and watch college football.
The preoccupation with influencing voters' habits stems from the fact that many close elections were ultimately decided by people who almost did not vote. Each campaign has identified millions of "low-propensity voters."
Persuading such voters is difficult, political professionals say, because direct appeals have already failed. So campaigns must enlist more subtle methods. In particular, according to campaign officials from both parties, two tactics will be employed this year for the first time in a widespread manner.
The first builds upon research into the power of social habits. The Obama and Romney campaigns, as well as affiliated groups, have asked their supporters to provide access to their profiles on Facebook and other social networks to chart connections to low-propensity voters in battleground states like Colorado, North Carolina and Ohio.
When one union volunteer in Ohio recently visited the AFL-CIO's election website, for instance, she was asked to log on with her Facebook profile. Computers quickly crawled through her list of friends, compared it to voter data files and suggested a work colleague to contact in Columbus. She had never spoken to the suggested person about politics, and he told her that he did not usually vote because he did not see the point.
"We talked about how if you don't vote, you're letting other people make choices for you," said the union volunteer, Nicole Rigano, a grocery store employee. "He said he had never thought about it like that, and he's going to vote this year. It made a big difference to know ahead of time what we have in common. It's natural to trust someone when you already have a connection to them."
Another tactic that will be used this year, political operatives say, is asking voters whether they plan to walk or drive to the polls, what time of day they will vote and what they plan to do afterward.
The answers themselves are unimportant. Rather, simply forcing voters to think through the logistics of voting has been shown, in multiple experiments, to increase the odds that someone will cast a ballot.
"Voting is habit-forming," said David W. Nickerson, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and a co-author of a study of such tactics. Nickerson is engaged in electoral work, though he would not specify for which campaigns or party. "When someone is asked to form a mental image of the act of voting, it helps trigger that habit."
It is difficult to gauge which campaign is using data more effectively. Though both parties use similar data sets, the Obama campaign and the Democratic Party conduct most analyses and experiments in-house and have drawn on a deep pool of data from four years ago.
The Romney campaign, by contrast, has relied on outside analytic firms and has focused more on using data to create persuasive messages and slightly less on pushing voters to the polls.
Officials for both campaigns acknowledge that many of their consultants and vendors draw data from an array of sources -- including some the campaigns themselves have not fully scrutinized. And as the race enters its final month, campaign officials increasingly sound like executives from retailers like Target and credit card companies like Capital One, both of which extensively use data to model customers' habits.
"Target anticipates your habits, which direction you automatically turn when you walk through the doors, what you automatically put in your shopping cart," said Rich Beeson, Romney's political director. "We're doing the same thing with how people vote."