When Jerry Skurnik left the Koch administration in the 1980s, he was considering a career in political consulting until a colleague of his suggested he go into a less obvious line of work: selling voter lists.
"The standard answer I give to people when they ask what I do is, I say, you know those annoying phone calls you get from politicians? We sell them your number."
Skurnik also sells your address, party affiliation, and date of birth — all basic information that most boards of election in New York State give away for free but that Skurnik compiles into neat lists and sells to political campaigns for 4 and a half cents per voter.
Skurnik is part of an industry of data collectors and data interpreters that has emerged around elections and the millions of dollars of business they generate every year. Some companies use census numbers to estimate your income, education, whether you’ve got kids, and how long it takes you to get to work. Other companies amass your consumer data to find out whether you travel often, eat a lot of fast food, or own a vacation home. Politicians want this information because they're trying to figure out who you are and how you view the world, so they can do a better job winning you over.
"Instead of saying, we assume this person is a Democrat because they live in a Democratic ward, we can look at the actual individual in a household and say, what’s the likelihood that they’re going to vote for candidate A over candidate B? What’s the likelihood that they’re undecided or persuadable? What issues are they likely to care about?" says Ken Strasma, who led the targeting efforts of Mayor Bloomberg's reelection campaign last year and President Obama's campaign in 2008.
In an apartment in East Williamsburg, one of Strasma's analysts, 27-year-old William Desmond, points to graphics full of voter data. Strasma's computer models, Desmond says, found that Democrats, African Americans, Jews, Muslims, single women, people who use public transit, and people who rent are more likely to support a candidate pledging to prevent budget cuts, whereas conservatives, voters who are married, Protestants, long-time homeowners, and people who eat often at family-styled restaurants are more likely to support tax cuts.
In these final days before the election, Desmond's immediate task is to create a list of voters the campaign he’s working for - which he declined to name - should target in its last minute push to get out the vote. "You want to find a sweet spot," he said, or persuadable and likely voters. Then the question is how to influence them.
"Campaigns are competing not only with each other but with also all the magazine and credit card solicitations that someone gets in the mailbox," Strasma said. "If you’ve got three seconds between the mailbox and the recycling bin when someone glances at your piece of mail, you want to make sure you’re using those three seconds to engage them on an issue that they’re likely to care about."
Last year, Mayor Bloomberg’s campaign profied voters so extensively that people living on the same block could receive different types of mailings. For example, if you're a voter concerned about public safety, Bloomberg sent you a flyer citing his record on crime. If you're an optimistic person, Bloomberg says, hey, we’ll get through this. The future is bright.
"The whole science of advertising is how do we do something that catches people’s attention and sticks with them in some way and makes them want to do something, " said Bradley Tusk, Bloomberg’s campaign manager in the last election. Tusk says the average voter is only thinking about a couple of things when they go into that voting booth."The trick is figure out what are those one or two things that you can try to get out there and repeat about yourself, or your opponent, so when they walk in there, they know the things about your candidate that you want them to know."
Working for Democratic candidates and seeing lots of voter data, Desmond says he's not terribly optimistic about Democrats' chances on Nov. 2, but he's trying look at the big picture, noting that Democrats made huge gains in the last two elections.
"We're working hard to do what we need to do, and I’d like to think that the information we’re able to provide will help us maximize what we have to work with," he said, knowing that the Republicans have their own targeters, doing the same thing.