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Data profiles aid voter turnout drives in Bishop-Zeldin race

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), left, and his 2014

Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton), left, and his 2014 challenger State Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley). Credit: James Escher

On a rainy evening in Shirley last week, Working America canvasser Alex Pavlakis peered at his iPad for the address of the next voter his union-affiliated group tagged for a knock on the door to urge a vote for Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton).

At a campaign office in nearby Center Moriches, Republican volunteer Bob Chartuk pushed a button on a telephone programmed to call a voter who an analysis indicated would be sympathetic to Bishop's GOP challenger, state Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley).

"Big data" analytics and new technology, which helped President Barack Obama win twice, have filtered down to congressional campaigns, including the close race between Bishop and Zeldin on Long Island's East End. There, Democrats and Republicans, as well as outside groups, said they're using new tools and techniques akin to those employed by businesses to find and track consumers.

The analysis typically combines basic voter information -- age, gender, party registration -- with data from polls, personal contacts and commercial lists such as subscriptions and buying habits, and even patterns of television viewing, to predict how people will vote.

Analysis of that data then identifies supporters and creates a profile of people likely to back their candidate. With that profile, the campaigns can target individuals for specific messages in visits, calls, direct mail, email and digital ads -- without wasting time or money on those likely to vote for the other side.

"Technology is allowing campaigns to be more efficient in targeting voters," said Candice J. Nelson, academic director of the Campaign Management Institute at American University.

Both sides continue to flood the airwaves with ads, but technology has revived emphasis on old strategies: volunteers contacting likely supporters on their doorstep or on the phone.

"The technology has been a real boost because it's complemented the old-school methods," said John Jay LaValle, chairman of the Suffolk County Republican Committee.

Richard Schaffer, chairman of the Suffolk County Democratic Committee, said, "It's no secret we've really fine-tuned our grassroots operation by tapping into and utilizing all the latest technology."

Schaffer said Bishop's campaign introduced big data and a push for more volunteer visits to voters' homes in Suffolk four years ago. "We know Tim Bishop won by 593 votes in 2010 because of door knocking," he said. "I swear by it."

Bishop's campaign declined to discuss its use of data.

One afternoon last week, Zeldin's campaign showed off its Victory VoIP phone system in its Center Moriches office.

A volunteer, Chartuk, 53, a consultant, pushed a button on the phone and it called a voter who fit the profile the campaign wanted to reach.

A 68-year-old woman in Riverhead, her name displayed on the phone's screen, answered. He asked who she planned to vote for. "Zeldin it is," he said.

Chartuk then pushed a different button to record her support in a database and rang a small bell to celebrate. That database creates lists for analysis, contacts and getting voters to the polls on Election Day, said Zeldin campaign manager Eric Amidon.

The system uploads the lists to volunteers' phones when they go out. "But there are still a lot of people who still will use only paper lists," he said.

That evening, Pavlakis, 23, began a four-hour shift going door to door in a working-class neighborhood in Shirley to urge voters to back Bishop. He carried a clipboard with fliers and an iPad protected from the rain by clear plastic.

Pavlakis has been working the East End since August, earning $45 a day from Working America, a nonprofit affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

On the iPad were addresses of voters who the group had identified as potentially responsive to Pavlakis' pitch.

After getting no answer at a half dozen houses, a 64-year-old man, a Republican who regularly votes, opened his door.

"I'd like to ask you two questions," said Pavlakis.

What is your top priority be for the next congressman? To talk straight to the American people, the man said.

And who do you plan to vote for? "Zeldin," he said.

Pavlakis touted Bishop's record, and the man acknowledged Bishop had saved jobs and helped the environment.

On the iPad, Pavlakis marked him as undecided, a notation sent to a database, where it will be used for voter turnout.

In an hour Pavlakis knocked on 22 doors. Six people answered -- and said they'd vote for Zeldin. After a full shift, he said he talked to 35 people: a third for Zeldin, a third for Bishop and a third undecided.

"I suppose statistics doesn't predict any one conversation," Pavlakis said. "But in the aggregate it predicts it pretty well."

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