Political fundraising campaigns manage debts by selling data
June 1, 2015 12:00 AM
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum launched his presidential bid in Butler County last week. According to campaign-finance records, in just over two years, Mr. Santorum’s 2012 election committee earned nearly $281,000 by lending out contact information for his supporters.
By Chris Potter and Rich Lord / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum launched a new presidential bid in Butler County last week, hoping to recapture the grassroots support he enjoyed during his 2012 campaign. But many of those who rallied to his cause three years ago have been backing him ever since — whether they’ve known it or not.
According to campaign-finance records, in just over two years, Mr. Santorum’s 2012 election committee earned nearly $281,000 by lending out contact information for his supporters. The money was paid by “data brokers” who repackage such information for other politicians and causes.
“Lots of campaigns do that,” said John Brabender, a longtime political strategist for Mr. Santorum.
“A lot of the folks that ran in 2012, their lists are on the market,” agreed Ryan Meerstein, senior director for Client Strategy for Targeted Victory, a Virginia-based Republican technology firm. In January, the company paid more than $1.1 million to rent list information from Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.
Democrats, including 2016 front-runner Hillary Clinton, also rent lists. A now-defunct Clinton committee garnered nearly $200,000 from list rentals in 2012; $62,782 of that was paid by President Barack Obama’s re-election effort.
Campaigns sometimes rent lists directly to allies, but frequently “they are looking for any way they can to pay off debt,” said Ryan Lake, CEO of New York-based Lake Group Media. Mr. Santorum’s 2012 election committee, for example, was nearly $450,000 in the red as of March 31.
But in a country where the secret ballot is a cultural touchstone, “People often want to keep their preferences secret,” said Darrell M. West, a Brookings Institution scholar who has studied technology and politics.
Candidates are “compiling information and treating it as a commodity. I think most people would be shocked about the level of information campaigns have on them.”
The most coveted data, campaign professionals say, includes personal contact information of campaign contributors.
Also of interest, said Mr. Meerstein, are lists of voters “willing to turn an online action into an offline action,” like attending a rally, or requesting a lawn sign.
Campaigns also can rent out information voters provide about “what they think is an important issue,” said Jordan Lieberman, president of Washington, D.C., consulting firm Campaign Grid.
Arguably, using such information to pay off campaign debt isn’t much different than bankrupt retailer RadioShack’s recent and controversial effort to auction off its own customer data.
“We’re talking about information that’s given to a volunteer standing at the doorstep,” said John Aristotle Phillips, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based political data firm Aristotle.
“I think voters have every right to expect their communications will not be spread around.”
Mr. Santorum’s 2012 list reflects his early popularity with grassroots conservatives — Mr. Brabender said the campaign had more than 300,000 small-dollar contributors. But rivals like 2012 GOP candidate Newt Gingrich also have capitalized on their lists.
Mr. Gingrich’s campaign folded shortly after Mr. Santorum’s effort and started 2013 with roughly $4.8 million in debt.
But campaign-finance records suggest it has since earned $434,000 by providing supporter lists to Virginia-based TMA Direct Inc.
The company markets his list as “the culmination of years of Newt’s generous work with many different politically conservative organizations” — not to mention 449,813 “conservative Americans who have followed Newt’s example of taking action for what they believe.”
Who would want that information, aside from other advocates of colonizing the moon?
TMA, which could not be reached for comment, works in the political arena but also provides lists for commercial and nonprofit marketing. Its website boasts of “Turning consumers into audiences, turning data into income.”
Mr. Lake, whose firm has handled Ms. Clinton’s list, said data users include “nonprofit organizations that think, ‘If someone is making a donation to Rick Santorum, maybe they’ll donate to other conservative causes.’ With Hillary Clinton, it could be Planned Parenthood.”
Political data also can be used commercially, especially to sell products with strong ideological associations.
“It doesn't happen as often as you might think,” Mr. Lake said. “But if you’ve got political contributors to pro-gun candidates, it might make sense to give them a hunting magazine offer.”
Trading such data does carry dangers. Renting out supporters’ names may help future rivals, and voters may be alienated if their names are shared too widely, or with causes they oppose.
“The risk is the data is not transferable,” said Mr. Lieberman, of Campaign Grid. Conservative Democrats in Western Pennsylvania, for example, might bridle at a stridently liberal pitch from elsewhere.
Preventing such missteps is the responsibility of brokers like Targeted Victory, said Mr. Meerstein. Brokers match the campaign’s list with messages from clients, who typically don’t see the full list themselves.
The broker “has a responsibility to make sure that list [is] rented to organizations that fit with the overall belief system” of the campaign, Mr. Meerstein said.
And while some Santorum backers may have distrusted Mr. Romney in early 2012, Mr. Brabender said, “They obviously preferred Gov. Romney over Barack Obama.”
After bowing out from the race, Mr. Santorum’s campaign rented its list to the Romney campaign, and “they must have had a significant response, because they used it repeatedly.”
Still, he added, Mr. Santorum’s willingness to share information with Mr. Romney “doesn’t mean he would provide that access to every candidate.” And “now that the campaign has started, he won’t let anybody else use it.”
A more immediate concern in purchasing lists, said Mr. Brabender, may be voter fatigue as solicitations pile up.
“You have 12 or 15 viable Republican presidential candidates this election,” he said, “and a lot of those campaigns will be renting the same lists.”
Rich Lord: email@example.com or 412-263-1542. Chris Potter: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1533.
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