Good use of data vs. Bad use of data with Nicole Schlinger from Campaign HQ

published on 23 August 2023

Hey Nicole thanks for for joining today I wanted to I really appreciate you taking the time to tell us a little bit more about Campaign HQ, how you guys use data and data analytics to deliver the the best quality solutions for your your customers.

So I know Campaign HQ as the pre-eminent voter contact firm for politics and advocacy is that a fair description? Or how would you characterize Campaign HQ and the work that you do.

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely thank you so much for having me here today. Dante I really appreciate it and thanks for thanks for calling us preeminent I consider that a high compliment so Campaign HQ, we help candidates win their elections and public policy organizations win their public policy battles using live calls automated calls text messages telephone town halls and all of that centers around contacting the right people with the right message at the right time so that it drives and propels them motivates them to take the actions that we hope they they would take.  Actions that are aligned with their motivations, actions that are aligned with what they believe is in the best interest of their locality state country. 

And that means things like prompting people to return their ballots early! Prompting people who may be low-to-mid propensity voters to get out and vote in an off-year election in a primary in a special election. And on the public policy side it's grassroots mobilization to pressure those politicians we elected to do the right thing and keep the promises that we elected them to fulfill, and that often takes the the form of patch-through calls, where a constituent is on the line with the legislator, with a lawmaker staff, demanding that they vote for or against a bill.

Or it's having a telephone town hall where we share information about that issue and get people to "press 1" if they support it and then provide that to legislators, lawmakers who are on the fence and they say "well I'm not hearing enough about this issue" or "I don't think the people in my district care about this issue." Well then the people from the organization can March in the next day and say "I was on the line with 6000 people last night and 4000 of them want you to do X" that's really powerful.

The one thing that we know is politicians fear nothing more than losing their next election, and seeing substantial constituent support on an issue is extremely motivating to them. And all of that relies on data.

You have to be calling the right people. You have to know useful information about those people in order to deliver that message in a way that persuades them. You know you think about a phone call. You know, the phone rings... they're watching Wheel of Fortune...they're in the middle of making spaghetti...they're doing something else.

They're not thinking about public policy or about the next election the same way that we are. I wake up every morning and I'm thinking about what's going to happen in November 2024. I know you are and probably the people watching this are, but the rest of America's not. And so how do we capture their interest? That means understanding something about them and what's going to motivate them before you place that call or have that voter contact.

It's so funny you bring that up because I have to remind our customers frequently that this is our whole life. But when I say this I mean you know politics at large politics advocacy issues. This is our whole life. But this is only one portion of their life whether it's ah, a donor a voter, just your average Citizen, politics is only one part part of their life.

So I appreciate you giving us a kind of a rundown of how of what you do and how you do it. 

 I saw a piece that you your company Campaign HQ had had published a while back, actually just about a week ago, and it is great high level overview on how you help campaigns and advocacy organizations use data. But I'm hoping that you can maybe dig a little bit deeper into sort of data best practices.

How how to how to use data and to make the messaging more effective make the campaigns more efficient and and more impactful and achieving the intended result? 

Nicole: Yeah, you bet! So the first thing that I would encourage people to think about with data is that it doesn't have to be complicated, but you do have to keep the data in one place.

Ah, it's about choosing a place putting everything in one place and then making sure that you you know, utilize it effectively. And from a from a high-level on an election standpoint, you're trying to put the people in your area in your district into three buckets.

They either support you, you don't know,  or they oppose you.

And as you might find that information out at the doors, you can find it out on a phone call, you can find it out when you're out-and-about at an event and people come and talk to you. There are so many ways to get that input and it's important that that input comes in and is funneled into that one location. Because once you know who supports you - as an example - you could do a few things with that the #1 thing is once someone supports you you should be driving them to vote, vote early, and and if not early on election day.

The RNC is starting this new nationwide "Bank Your Vote" program which I think is absolutely the right direction and long needed. And I love the focus on why early voting matters. Even if someone is a mid-to-high propensity voter, which means they're very likely to vote, their voting history indicates that probably if they vote they're going to vote for you. But even so if they have not voted during an extended early voting period by mail, in-person, we are we are required - at the risk of political malpractice - to continue messaging them and to keep sending them mail and to keep calling them to keep feeding them digital ads, OTT, et cetera.

And so every day that voter doesn't vote, we are spending money on them, and not on someone else who might be a low propensity voter for whom 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 pushes are needed to get them to the polls. Or someone who's on the line and needs to know more about who you are and where you stand.

All the time that we spend pushing our election day voters to vote is time and money that we aren't ever going to get back to go after the folks that might be a little bit harder to reach or harder to pull our way. The first thing is the 3 buckets. You either are for us, we don't know about you, or you're against us.

Second thing on data - and I call this the basic blocking and tackling of politics - is knowing who's already voted. You know whether they're for you, you're not sure, or they're against you, if they've already voted, it's not about spending one penny more or one penny less on a text message. Any amount you spend on that voter above zero is a waste and so you know making sure that you have the ability to weed those people out in real time.

You should be able to get who had voted and use that to suppress and remove from your list of active contacts. From there I look at maybe that next level of sophistication which is for the people for whom I don't know where they stand.

Can I look at the folks who are my supporters and find commonalities. Do they live in a certain county? Do they live in a certain part of the district? Am I able to identify them on certain issues where there's a wedge between me and my opponent.

There are certain issues that are more vote determinative that change people's votes more than others. They call them a wedge issue for a reason. You think about that visual of a block of wood an Abraham Lincoln splitting that rail. A wedge issue has the ability to split that rail and get your people soundly on your side. Things like Life, the 2nd Amendment. Oftentimes those can be real wedge issues in a primary. They also can be motivational in general if if you are significantly different than your opponent and so you can potentially look at your supporters and find some areas of commonality and you don't have to be a PHD in data science to do that.


Yes, exactly exactly! And there are some of the systems out there provide some of that for you. But you certainly can look at your supporters and find people who look like them and then aggressively focus on and turn those people out.

I like the the fact that you kind of laid out 2 different uses use of data strategies. There's the 'proactive' which is done you know sort of prior to you launching a campaign - and when I say a campaign I mean like a messaging campaign, it might be a phones campaign, it might be a text message campaign, it might be an ad or a digital ad - is the data that you collect on the front end. And then there's the learning part of it which is the 'reactive' portion. So what are you getting back from these conversations and how can you use that to further refine the message or to learn more about the electorate in such a way that you can do a better job at messaging going forward.

I think there's almost too much emphasis on the front end. It's like trying to get things perfect in terms of like what's the right message with the I guess you could call it static data. And I think not enough emphasis on what can we learn through this process of messaging and and taking back that feedback. To refine the message going forward. Electorates are necessarily a fluid. We're talking about either hundreds of thousands or you know sometimes millions of of of voters. And to suggest that this is kind of like a static set of individuals with their motivations priorities expectations mischaracterizes how groups of people sociologically act. But they are reacting to things that are happening in the news, they are reacting to things that are happening in their own lives, so being able to both use data on the frontend to target - to create the message - but also being able to collect data throughout the process, to learn and refine the message, I think is critically important as well.

Nicole: Yeah, oh completely agree and I will say that is one of the most common things that that we see when we're working with a campaign. They're not sure how to do that.

And so you know - as an example - they are you know they're receiving multiple inputs Um, and the way I talk about it is when you're going to the door, and if you're a State Rep Candidate, you can knock on enough doors to win the election. Ah, which means you can have enough conversations you maybe you team, your spouse, your kids, you could personally talk to enough people to make a vote determinative difference.

So oftentimes those candidates have the absolute best instinctive sense. They can put their finger up in the wind and as things develop, you know, there's events in the news that drive the narrative of a campaign that are beyond your control. Maybe something's happening. You're running for Congress and something's happening in Congress. Well, you're not there. You don't have a vote you don't control that. But you certainly have to get in and participate and react and engage with that information because that's where voters are and you have to meet the voter where they are and what they care about and that does change it is dynamic over the course of time. That said we often find that candidates or even their campaign managers, their general consultants, they are putting out so many other fires you're dealing with your opponent attacking you, you're dealing with the media, you're trying to approve digital ads, direct mail. All of those kinds of things.

Spread thin...

And so the notion of taking the results from a text message or the results from those people that you met in an event and trying to get that back into your voter database. It often gets pushed to the wayside people know it's important. I've never talked to someone who doesn't think it's important.

I can't tell you how many times we return a file to a client of ours and we tell them you know "Agnes is deceased" and "Gertrude has moved away" and the next round of voter contact Agnes and Mildred are still in the list. And so we really started taking a lot more proactive approach with this and so if you send me back that data and you tell me and it's clean I'm going to know it's not because we're doing that for you and so we - like I said - we take a more proactive approach where if we know something.

Modeling is a guess. Direct voter contact is knowing someone holds you that they're for you. They're against you, et cetera. If someone tells us I don't like so-and-so, go tell them to pound sand, I don't want to keep trying to turn that person out to the polls. It's the last thing I want to do.


So we try to narrow that funnel I always tell people. I would rather call 5000 people three times than 15,000 people once because ultimately, there have been studies done over - I've been doing this since 1996 - but over the years there's been a host of different studies done and things change over time. But one thing doesn't change is you need at least 4 to 7 touches on a low propensity voter or an undecided voter to shift them. Think about it from a commercial standpoint how many times do you need to see a Lays Potato Chip ad before you know that Lays potato chip has a new flavor out there. It's more than once and it needs to come from different areas. It needs to be a surround sound echo chamber and that means phones and mail and texts.

One of the dangers that I see lurking on the horizon is people have become begun to rely more and more on texts because they're so fast. They're so easy to deliver. They're relatively inexpensive. They're an amazing form of voter communication. 

But every time you send out a text message, especially if you send out something spammy, you're going to get opt outs and if once a person opts out of your text messaging, they've opted out forever out of your text messaging and over time that might means 10%, 20% of your desired universe is unreachable by text message.

So I am urging people a be careful what you send, have a plan to do with what those with what you're going to do with those opt outs later. We'd worked on an IE [Independent Expenditure] in Nevada they were. They were in support of Lombardo for governor who, as you know Governor Lombardo was one of our few amazing bright spot Wins in 2022. One when even the US senate candidate there unfortunately fell short. We did work for an Independent Expenditure group there and we were specifically solely focused on calling opt outs because in a close race, let's say you're running for a State Rep you've got a universe of 5000 people you're trying to either persuade or turn out, 1000 of them have opted out of your communications, and this race is going to be decided by less than 1% do you think you should call those opt outs?

Get something on their voicemail, get something they're going to see, or hear in real time. I think that's the next danger and it's something that people have not been thinking about and have not been anticipating. But if you don't have your data all in 1 place if you can't match your voters and who's voted and who's likely to vote for you and who's opted out. If. You don't have that in one place where you can pull that list, you're going to be in real trouble and there's going to be people who lose over that.

Well I'm glad that you explained that because when as we were talking I was was thinking about how do you deal with those opt-outs? So that's helpful. Um I'm glad that you explain that? Um, but 1

But one thing that - taking a little bit of a left turn here - the the news outlet polling organization or I guess been a polling organization so much as a news outlet 538 they have a podcast I forget what it's called, but they do this thing. Good use of data or good use of polling bad use of polling.

And they'll analyze you know different things that come out with with polls and and whether or not they think it's a productive data point when it comes to messaging and when it comes to persuasion or turnout recognizing that the fundraising, turnout  and persuasion messaging are all very different.

Do you have any have any learnings or any advice about like sort of good use of data versus bad use of data in crafting messages for the various campaigns.

Nicole Schlinger: Trying to think where to start on because there's so many places to dive in on that. One of the things I see is people trying to get too specific if you will.

The average voter - like you said earlier - politics, voting is a 1 day thing for them. Politics is a part of their lives but it's not their whole lives. Ah, sometimes people who you get a candidate, a campaign manager, a GC who's really into their data. And sometimes they can take it what I think is a step too far and get so far into the weeds that they've lost the voters interest. So that's that's 1 thing that I that I tend to see.

When you're looking at model data, that's a guess. It's not a fundamental truth. Being at someone's door and having them tell you "yes secure borders is my number 1 issue." That's a fact. You stood and looked at that person had a conversation. They told you that so you know a little bit more securely than than modeled data because model data is mostly right? It's a good guess but it can be wrong.

I think there is a fundamental misunderstanding about what a model is and the models are not facts. Models are not positive IDs one way or another so that that helps you to distinguish what a turnout message versus a persuasion message because those are different you. You probably don't need to lean as as heavy on individual issues for turnout purposes. You just need them to know how to vote because you have a pretty good idea that they're going to vote and we have a pretty good idea as to whether or not they're going to vote the way that we'd like to see so it's just a matter of giving them the information - in many cases - and further encouragement whereas persuasion, now now you start to get into the issues. Now you start to get into how you distinguish yourself from the competition.

And I think that the the there's a fundamental difference that needs to be appreciated and not every you you probably don't need to it might actually work to your detriment to use persuasion messaging on turnout because what if you hit the wrong wrong issue and you lead them astray and that someone who's going to vote for you is now having second thoughts and now they're now they're doing more research and you may demotivate them I don't know if that's a word demotivate? What's the right way to say it disincentivize voting.

Do you find that there are general Best practices for for persuasion versus turnout messaging.

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely so turnout messaging is probably in the last 4 to 6 years seen the most change um in in part, you know this really? ah.

This really took an increase in 2020 because of covid and the changes to voting you remember we had states that canceled and rescheduled their primaries. We had States that mailed ballots to everyone in the district that had never done something like that before um, but what we did see was a massive shift to early voting.

And so, as a result we saw massive voter confusion. Ah people who thought they knew where to vote that didn't know where to vote people who thought they know you know I always go to the schoolhouse they show up at the schoolhouse and it's locked and padlocked shut. We've seen changes in the duration of early in-person voting, who's allowed to request a ballot by mail, how can you safely and securely return it. So successful candidates are spending more time getting into that plan to vote with the voter.

If you look at the academic studies, what is one of the most effective forms of appreciably changing turnout - not just turning out people who were going to turnout already - actually boosting your turnout amongst amongst low propensity voters people with a poor voting track record, it's the plan to vote, which means walking people through in their minds, how they plan to vote? Do you plan to vote early in person by mail or on election day? Great! You plan to vote early in person. Do you know which day you're going to go which of the early voting early voting polling places? Do you plan to be at? Are you going to walk there? Drive? Are you going to go with someone else?

It's been proven that the kinds of questions that allow a voter to paint a very vivid picture in their mind of voting make a difference and the reason is people have a natural aversion to behaving in a way that's incongruent with what they've already envisioned themselves. So now they see themselves as a voter. Well, if you're a voter what do you do? The more clearly you can walk them through that path to vote the better. Also you can follow up with people on that plan to vote if you're able to record it in enough detail.

I'd always tell people this is an 80/20 problem with an 80/20 solution right?

You don't have to you don't have to capture every last detail of their plan to vote if you can get a few of the high level basics when you do call that person back. You can reference those high level basics. "Hey I remember you're going to go vote at you know you're going to go vote early in person. You thought you were going to go sometime this week and and you were planning on driving there. How's that going for you?" 

There's ways that you can then reinforce the message that the voter gave to you with a really good data driven strategy so that's turnout turnout is focused on. The mechanics the how the when the where the why and understanding that there is a great deal of confusion and also amongst Republicans there's a great deal of worry and concern about accuracy voting security voting integrity vote counting and we need to make sure that. Voters are able to address that in a way that does not deter them from actually casting their vote.

We want them to go and vote in the way that they are most confident that their vote is going to get counted and that they do it correctly because it it can be hard in some places to know, "can I take my mail ballot and show up at the polling place on election day and return it? Or will that cause me to cast a provisional ballot that I have a greater uncertainty of being counted later on in the canvas?" So that's turnout.

Then you've got persuasion again. Persuasion is where modeling can be helpful because you're going to have a good guess, a good idea of what might be useful, and so then again, you're looking at what are the things that people in this district care about what are some of the wedge issues that make me different from my opponent and again sometimes that's not an issue sometimes that can be things like "I'm really young and I represent the future. I live in Grundy County and my opponent lives in Hardin County" and there can be things that are you know we tend to be as political professionals. We are ideologically motivated and we're motivated by the game of politics. But people for whom voting is a once once every two years or once every so often thing. They want their hometown guy or gal or they you know they want someone who represents the future I see that a lot in - surprisingly - I see that a lot in rural areas because in rural areas one of people's key drivers is this loss aversion. These kids graduate from high school. They go to college, and then they go to the city and then never come back and my town is getting emptied out and decimated and "I don't want to live a life where I have to get on a plane to see my kids."

That isn't necessarily what we would consider a typical ideological issue, but boy, you talk about something that motivates people and then they see a person in their mid 20 s or late 20 s or early 30 s running that is you know? Ah, that's something that is shining beacon of hope.

I saw that in Southwest Iowa where Devon Wood, who's in her early 20 s just astoundingly won in just such a commanding way because she's a hometown kid who loves her area loves rural Iowa and wants to it wants to make it great again to you know to use the saying. People will flock to that kind of thing. So she persuaded and turned out people who probably wouldn't have gone out to the polls because what she had to offer was such a contrast and so inspirational.

That's a great tie into some of the the advice that we give our users on the the fundraising side is that oftentimes you don't have to know exactly what issue is is most motivating to them (the donor prospects), what types ideologically aligned candidates that they like to give to, but sometimes people give just because they like you and because you've put your your yourself out there authentically! 

How do you distinguish sort of a fundraising message because we still want to motivate people to take action, but this is a different activity and it's it's more and of an immediate thing.

You talked to earlier about making a plan to vote or you know in other cases contacting a legislator to voice your opinion. Do we want to motivate people to take action but is there...have you found that there's a fundamental to difference in the messaging around when we send someone a text message to motivate them to contribute is there other general best practices around that?

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely so I was I was a fundraiser for over twenty years and so this issue is close to my heart and you know fundamentally the difference between fundraising and voter contact is if someone's going to give you money. They're likely already for you. So think about it. Presume that they're already a supporter and then figure out what's going to motivate them to give um things that motivate a donor or a perspective donor to give are the notion of what may happen to the State or the Country. "If I lose what will happen."  Don't think you have to work very hard to paint a a grim picture of you know of our country and our principles and the things that we hold dear are in grave danger. So if we lose what's the danger what will happen? Well I need your help now to prevent that. Here are the things that I'm going to do with your with your contribution. So the fundraising, the kind of the fundraising journey in people's minds is the "here's the state that I want our you know our country to be in um here is the threat to it."

"Here's what will happen if I don't take action" and "here's what's going to be done with my contribution in order to avert that danger in crisis."

I think that's so important the what's going to be done with the contribution because when when you bring money into the picture. However, however, small it may be if it's a you know $1, $5, $25, $50 contribution.

They still are expecting to reap some type of return on their investment and when you start getting into the the the high-dollar donor space, that's even more magnified. And I think that that is one area where we collectively could could do a better job as articulating "How are these funds going to be used? How are you going to see a benefit?"

Nicole: And so I really appreciate that that point. That yeah and I've seen um and you mentioned you know low dollar donors high dollar donors. The reality is the for the person giving $10 that $10 is as meaningful as $10,000 as for the person giving $10,000 so you know I think fundamentally, the America that they want to see you know, may or may not be different. They may have different things that they want to see in their ideal future state. But the rash you know, but the notion of I want a return on investment I believe is there no matter what! Some of the things I think about are, people love to help you make sure that you have "I need to recruit a County Chair in every County in my district" or "I need to get precinct chairs I need to hold this rally I need to send get out the vote mailers."

I think that it's important to be specific enough to allow the potential donor to to grasp on quickly to what you want to do with the money but not to get too far in the weeds, right? If I say well "I want to send a mailer to low to mid Propensity voters" I think that you can get so far that you get away from what the motivation is, which is, "if I lose we're in danger" and "here's how I'm going to win" because people want to give to winners they you know? Um, yes, we're all in this together. We're ideologically aligned this is part of a larger movement but you don't.

Right? They need to see that pathway to Victory.

I notice you conspicuously didn't include "I need to buy yard signs" as one of those those things that the the campaign could use the funds on...

Nicole: You know people don't want to give to losers. Yeah. Yeah, we let's not go there. Yard signs don't win elections.

But no we don't want to go down that rabbit hole right now. So I really appreciate all of your insights and and you taking the time to child bus today I just wanted to ask what's new. What's exciting. What are you excited about and and anything. That you're looking forward to at Campaign HQ or for this upcoming election cycle.

Nicole: Yeah, absolutely one of the things that I am the most excited about is campaigns seem to be interested and motivated to try new things and so you know the things that we know is best practices today, that are given, are because someone someone wanted to try them at some point and found out what worked and so that that excites me generally. Something that that I'm particularly intrigued by right now is the notion of how we leverage influencers in direct voter contact.

And by influencers I don't mean someone who's got five hundred thousand Instagram followers.  What I mean is  - you know - for example Ed Jones who's the football coach at the high school that's a well-known person in that area and so as an example, you know how can I use Ed Jones and my text messaging to to get a result.

How can I ask people once they agree that they're you know once they agree that they're going to vote. Can you? Yeah can you help me with the name. Can you help me tell 3 other people to go out and vote for me collecting the names of those 3 people. And then following up with that voter and say did you talk to John, Mary, and Joe. So I'm really interested in how we use direct voter contact to leverage the power of relationships because you think about it. When I want to know if a restaurant is good, I might ask you. And if you tell me a restaurant isn't good, I'm going to believe you and I probably won't go there. So the power of you talking to your friend about voting has to be more impactful than yet another you know yet another direct mail piece in your mailbox and so um I believe we can use our current tactics to leverage that by asking people who you know once we persuade you, especially a mid to low propensity voter, let's say. 

For folks on the phone who are on the line here who are wondering what I mean by that, what I mean is, someone who votes in General elections but not Primaries, or someone who votes in Presidential years but not in Midterm years, and certainly doesn't vote in municipal elections in an odd number year.

If someone like that commits to voting for me, the likelihood is the people in their circle also likely have similar voting patterns.

And so your ability to leverage that person to get to more people like them, I think could have an impact that we we do not know how great it can be, so I'm very interested in in things like that right now.

Yeah, we're talking about network effects and social proof and we now have plenty of data to support how powerful these these tactics are in motivating political behavior. So I I agree I think I'm also excited about things like relational organizing.

There are some great companies that are building software around using relational organizing which is is you know a tool that facilitates the types of interactions that you're that you're describing.

And I also appreciate how you distinguish the influencer. You know we're talking about micro influencers here. Not you're not like a celebrities or you know Instagram celebrities...

Nicole: Yes, yeah, and using that at scale. That's that's where I think we need to take the leap that that I think that this happens or you know at least on our side of the aisle. It happens organically now and we do some things sporadically, but not consistently done aggressively at scale and that's where that's where I think we have an opportunity.

I agree and I'm looking forward to seeing how those these tactics are are executed and implemented in and various campaigns across the country. So Nicole it's always fun. It's always a great time talking politics talking business with you I really appreciate you taking the time and looking forward to to seeing what you guys do in the and in 2024.

Nicole: Sounds good. Thanks so much. This was fun! For anyone who has any questions or wants to talk more, our website is We would would love to talk to anyone about their voter contact plans and how we can how we can help make them effective.

We're not going to twist your arm. We're not going to give you a hard sales pitch. But if there's a way we can move the needle for you that's what we're here for and that's what we do! Awesome! thanks.

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