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Accessed Clinton Files Could Give Opponent's Campaign Valuable Details

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Big data is playing a bigger and bigger role in modern elections. Campaigns can use voter lists to track behavior and target certain people. It's hardly ever a thing candidates actually talk about - until last week, when news broke that staffers working for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had viewed and saved the files of voters that Hillary Clinton's campaign has ID-ed as key supporters. NPR's Scott Detrow has more on the role these voter files play in campaigns for everything from the State House to the White House.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Robby Mook, who manages Clinton's campaign, was livid about the fact several Sanders staffers took advantage of a flaw in the Democratic Party's central database and accessed parts of Clinton's voter files.

ROBBY MOOK: Anyone who accessed it really had access to the fundamental keys of our campaign.

DETROW: Mook spoke to reporters on a conference call the day the data breach became public. On NBC's "Meet The Press," Sanders was just as angry, but about the Democratic National Committee's decision to block his campaign from accessing the party's voter files for nearly two days.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

BERNIE SANDERS: To shut off our access to our own information to significantly hinder our campaign was a complete overreaction. And that was absolutely wrong.

DETROW: Sanders said the DNC's decision could cost his campaign $600,000 a day in lost fundraising ability. Both campaigns' reactions and the severity of the party's decision underscore one fact. In politics, voter files are a really big deal. Matt Oczkowski ran data operations for Republican Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's presidential campaign. He says he empathizes with the Clinton campaign.

MATT OCZKOWSKI: I know from my perspective, if that had happened to us on Walker, I would've been severely upset because that is the nerve center of a campaign. Every decision a campaign makes, in my opinion, should be somewhat data driven. And it should be based off of that file.

DETROW: So first off, what exactly is in these voter files?

ETHAN OEDER: Typically, you're going to find age, gender. You'll have address, sometimes phone number. In Southern state's you'll even have the race of the voter.

DETROW: That's Ethan Roeder, who worked as data director for President Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns. That information may sound pretty generic, but it's what campaigns do with it that matters. They spend months of effort and millions of dollars building on that data, trying to find more information about voters. Staffers and volunteers knock on doors and make phone calls, eating up a lot of campaign resources. But it's worth it because Roeder says all this information is an attempt to answer two really important questions.

ROEDER: Who is this voter likely to support? What candidate is this voter likely to support? And the second is, is this voter likely to vote?

DETROW: Traditionally, campaigns have made these decisions on a very local level. Send mail to these people about these specific issues because that's what they're interested in. Roeder says the analysis has gotten more sophisticated.

ROEDER: By the time we were in 2012, we were using statistical analytical techniques to determine which cities in Ohio the president would visit.

DETROW: Those techniques mean even more data going into the files. Campaigns often buy information about people's shopping and web-browsing habits. They use complicated statistical modeling to try and get a better sense of the types of people who'd support them and who to spend valuable time and effort to reach. All of this is sensitive, strategic information. Matt Oczkowski, who ran data operations for Scott Walker's presidential and gubernatorial campaigns says no, a candidate isn't going to win or lose based solely on these files.

OCZKOWSKI: But what we do matters extremely on the margins, where if you're talking about a one, two, three, four-point race, access to this level of data and having this sophisticated operation is the difference between winning and losing. And we've seen that.

DETROW: So you can understand why a campaign might be so upset about the idea of simply turning this information over to an opponent for free. Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.