News Top Stories

Data mining gets religion as campaigns target voters of faith

RNS photo illustration by Kit Doyle

WASHINGTON, D.C. (RNS) — In 2004, as George W. Bush was running for a second presidential term, his campaign asked religious supporters to share their churches’ directories, which staffers hoped to combine with voting registration records. The strategy was criticized by some conservative religious leaders, who felt it violated churchgoers’ privacy, the New York Times reported at the time.

Fourteen years later, the spread of social media and digital profiling has made such privacy concerns seem almost quaint. Powerful data-mining tools allow today’s campaigns to connect religious voters with their political viewpoints and to micro-target ads to fit their particular brand of faith.

“It’s definitely happening at a greater level,” said Terry Schilling, executive director of the conservative American Principles Project.

Steve Rabinowitz. Photo courtesy of Bluelight Strategies

Data has increasingly become the currency of political campaigns. The two parties and campaign consultants put huge resources into developing sophisticated voter files based on previous voting records, phone numbers, email addresses and other data.

“Before you knew it, you had this incredible profile of people,” said Steve Rabinowitz, co-founder and president of Bluelight Strategies and a former campaign and transition team staffer for Bill Clinton.

As elections focus more on mobilizing voters of known views, rather than convincing a broad middle, those profiles have become increasingly valuable, and they are bought and sold within each party’s phalanx of consultants.

But traditional data hasn’t reflected beliefs. Religious information isn’t available for purchase from the census, from banks or from anyone else. “Nobody gathers religion,” Rabinowitz said.

The new techniques are changing that.

Last year, Eitan Hersh, associate political science professor at Tufts University, “scraped” church and synagogue websites to build a database that matched some 130,000 clergy with their voting records.

Data sets like this can be used to speak to religious voters without being offensive to nonreligious ones, Hersh told Religion News Service. An ad containing messages about helping the poor, the stranger, the needy or the sick could connect with believers, for instance, without being seen as “too religious” for other voters with a secular interest in social justice.

Other ads might hammer particular voters with highly targeted ads pointing out, say, an opponent’s support for abortion.

Facebook has been a game changer, said Rabinowitz. Campaigns can pinpoint users who self-identify as part of a particular faith group and run advertisements on their individual pages, much as they would run ads in a religiously affiliated newspaper.

Eitan Hersh testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on privacy regulations on May 16, 2018. Photo courtesy of CSPAN

“It’s fairly easy as far as political tactics go,” said Barney Keller, a partner at Jamestown Associates, which produced media for Donald Trump’s campaign and is working on dozens of current Republican races. “The advertising on Facebook is cheap. The building of a model of certain types of voters can be (done at) various levels of sophistication and expense.”

As an example, Facebook has made it easier to create a model for likely Jewish voters and drive ads toward them.

“You could say, ‘I want to target every Rosenbaum and Rosenthal and Rosen, and so on and so forth,’” Keller said. “You can just use that as a way to target potentially Jewish voters. That’s the way a lot of it is done.”

Rabinowitz has tried in the past to build a Jewish voter file. “It’s exceptionally difficult,” he told RNS.

Given the amount of information that is now available about voters’ faiths, Rabinowitz said he has seen less religion-oriented messaging than he’d expect. “There’s so much more room for it to be so much more sophisticated,” he said.

Schilling agreed, pointing out that the GOP could use data to better court blue-collar Catholics — union-supporting, registered Democrats who are nonetheless often swing voters because of their conservative beliefs on issues like religious freedom and right to life. Targeting ads to this demographic could help sway them to vote Republican, according to Schilling.

“It’s a major missed opportunity,” he said. “You can actually win over a bunch of Democrats to your base.”

Rabinowitz acknowledges that every kind of data gathering comes with risks. “I wouldn’t want the biggest anti-Semites in the world to have the list” of Jewish voters, he said.

While Schilling agrees there is a danger of misusing religious data, he thinks the level of concern often depends on who is accessing the data. In 2012, said Schilling, the Obama campaign and Facebook all but bragged about teaming up. But when the political survey firm Cambridge Analytica gathered data from 50 million Facebook users for the use of the Trump campaign in 2016, the ensuing controversy was “overblown,” he said.

A user signs into Facebook on an iPad in North Andover, Mass, on June 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Pollsters are also starting to approach religion and voting differently. According to Jamestown’s Keller, pollsters have long asked prospective voters about their religious affiliation, but he is seeing them ask the question in new ways.

“These days, one thing we ask a lot more of is, ‘Are you a Trump Republican?’ Or this other one, which a lot of pollsters have started to put in, is ‘Are you a Christian Republican?’” he said. “The Christian one tends to be neck-and-neck with the Trump Republican these days.”

Knowing voters’ religious identities can help campaigns decide how to craft ad language in ways that simply knowing their views on abortion, which often divide down both religious and political lines, wouldn’t dictate.

“Just because someone says that they are pro-life doesn’t mean it’s going to be the number one issue for them when they vote,” Keller said. “For many voters, it’s informative of their world view. Understanding people’s faiths and their religious views will always be critical when it comes to electoral politics.”

As campaigns understand more about voters’ religious identities, said Hersh, the Tufts professor, a fundamental question about party identity is at stake. That’s especially true for Democrats.

Catholics have long voted Democratic, but as the party grows increasingly secular, that could change. Race is the largest division between parties, but religion is “not as well understood,” Hersh said. It is harder to predict what will happen to religious voters who currently identify as Democrats.

Pew Research Center data released in March reveals that religiously unaffiliated registered voters are on the rise, from 8 percent in 1997 to 12 percent in 2007, and subsequently doubling to 24 percent in 2017.

Registered Democrats account for a large share of that change. In 1997, 9 percent of registered Democrats were religiously unaffiliated. That number climbed to 15 percent in 2007 and reached 33 percent — 1 in 3 Democrats —by 2017.

“For the public, the interesting question is to what extent the Democrats are a party that is welcoming to religious people,” Hersh said.

RNS photo illustration by Kit Doyle

About the author

Menachem Wecker


Click here to post a comment

  • I don’t like this big brother stuff at all. From the DMV, to Facebook, to the credit card companies; everyone is sharing our personal data for their financial or political gain.
    Perhaps something we can all agree on?

  • Addressing the odd last line of this article, the Democratic Party is always completely accepting of anyone who will vote for Democrats. The game is not about anything else. It’s not, for instance, about trying to recruit people into the party who want the Democratic platform changed to anti-reproductive-choice, anti-union, anti-LGBT rights, anti-environmentalism, anti-PPACA, anti-SNAP, anti-public education, anti-regulation, anti-Social Security & Medicare, pro guns, pro tax cuts and pro “Constitutional Originalism”.

    Religious people should have recognized that Republicans have not been telling them balanced truth on any of these issues for several decades. If they just “can’t see it, don’t see it”—–then you can’t get them.

  • Paragraph 2 says religious are getting played by the Republicans.

    Paragraph 1 says religious people are not welcome by the Democrats.

    Fiendly Goat doesn’t put the two together and explain the last election.

  • government is always 5 years behind the market.
    I would prefer to see Google, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter be broken apart into smaller components.
    There are laws in place against selling people’s data – it’s just that states and municipalities do it too. I think it reflects poorly on those in charge of the constituent lists at both levels that they sell the data for revenue. They should be more ethical.

  • The only solution is to stay off social media sites. Don’t have a face book page, don’t use twitter. Don’t sign up for company discount cards–such as my local County Market has a discount card that gives special bargains to those who use the card–but to get the card they require personal information and they track your purchases and use that to target you with ads and who knows what else they do with the data.

    Don’t fall for the conveniences offered by smart home devices. They are connected to the internet, and can be hacked into perhaps turning on and off devices without your knowledge or consent.

  • I agree. I was an early skeptic of Facebook, and as the years have progressed have found that all my fears and concerns about putting everything out there about myself have been borne out. I’m a proud social media virgin and plan on staying that way!

  • The laws against selling people’s data are not being enforced with any rigor by a government which has no motivation to protect the public. One whose functionaries are personally profiting from not enforcing consumer protections.

    Putting kleptocrats in the executive branch has a nasty after-effect of making it open season for exploitation of consumers for financial gain.

  • Stop focusing on trump. This happens at the state and city level too – with government databases.
    Also, don’t forget that the kleptocrats you refer to have both D’s and R’s after their names.

  • It’s marketing 101. The more Facebook knows about you, the more they tailor your newsfeed – thus you read the news items of what you agree with (like spuddie for example 🙂 ). The more google collects the website addresses of searches that interest you; the more complete picture they have of your likes and dislikes.
    Same with amazon; they know WHO you are by what you search for and what you buy: guns, American flags, books, computer equipment, etc.
    THEN, when they have a 99% confidence level of who you are – they sell your name and address and profile to political campaigns and companies who market to you.
    It’s actually brilliant.
    However, they CAN influence people negatively; which is frightening.

  • But they don’t mind pointing out that Trump is “immoral” …. while at the same time touting same sex marriage.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self Reliance” is often quoted:

    “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”

    But come on, SOME sort of consistency is expected.

  • He is not only part of the problem but also a symptom of the actions which have brought us to this point.

    The entire notions of “small government” and “deregulation” are ones which promote this kind of corporate behavior and the impunity in which laws meant to prevent it are ignored.

    If the response to any sort of protection of the public is “regulation is socialism” arglebargle then one is part of the problem.

    The kleptocrats in power right now have R’s after their names. Especially the one in the WH. In fact R’s run under an openly kleptocratic platform. It is not that one politician or another is merely corrupt. Conservatives are trying to normalize such behavior and get fools to vote in favor of it. That is a quantum level higher than merely “both sides are doing it” deflection.

    So if you want to take action against such things then you need to address Republicans here. They are not only in power here but openly welcome such things.

  • Who cares? The issue is what are we doing about it now.

    You complain about a condition whose cause you don’t want to address and actively support it.

    As usual you deflect and bring up irrelevance rather than address important things right now.

    Again if you want to actually do something about the condition you complained about, maybe you should rethink your support of people who are profiting from it.

  • What do you think Trump is doing? After it came to light that Facebook, Twitter and Google had institutionalized anti-republicanism from the CEO down to the janitor; Trump has started floating the trial balloon of having the department of justice investigate; or even break these companies up.
    You also selectively fail to acknowledge that Zuckerberg, Bezos, gates, the dude from Twitter and Uber; and every other multi-billionaire that runs a tech company is a Democrat; and a democratic contributor.

  • Trump is profiting off the data collection for his campaign. He sold it off to private sources for money. He is actively encouraging the bad behavior you were complaining about.

    Now you are moaning that private companies are acting within their rights to express their political views and create terms for use of their services for their customers. Its a free market. Republicans were the ones who made corporate interests more important than individual ones.

    Now you are demanding a communist style attack on corporations because they don’t follow your political views. How ironic.

    Good to know that whatever professed ideals or ideology you have is complete garbage. All of it gets dropped at the slightest self serving inconvenience.

    You have been complaining about a situation you supported and enabled. So pardon me if I can’t possibly take you seriously here. You are the problem.

2019 NewsMatch Campaign: This Story Can't Wait! Donate.