Loveland, Colo., resident Melissa Riley got an unexpected flyer in the mail Friday with her name on it. Printed in red, white and blue text against a backdrop of the White House, it broke down the positions of President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, saying Obama supported "abortion on demand" and "mandated contraceptive coverage by religious charities." The flyer encouraged her to get similar pamphlets for her church in order to motivate the congregation to vote.
"It threw me for a loop because I am a registered Democrat," Riley, 54, said. But in tough economic times, Riley said, she also had thought about who would be better for job creation. She had only moved to Colorado a few months ago, and had never signed up for any political or religious lists with her new address.
Riley said she can't be sure, but suspects she was targeted by a pro-Romney organization through a relatively new tactic being used by Democrats and Republicans to get out the vote. It's one that has zeroed in on evangelicals and other religious voters, looking at, for example, how involved they are in a church or how often they visit and search for faith-related information online.
Using complex equations that crunch data that includes voter registration, party affiliation, consumer habits, religious preferences, church membership rolls and web browsing history, the Obama and Romney campaigns and independent supporters have been targeting potentially like-minded voters, skipping over those who software determines likely to be unpersuadable. Many close elections, after all, have been decided by undecided voters and by "low-propensity" voters -- those who came close to not voting or end up not voting at all. Campaign officials are identifying these voters. Then they're talking to them via door-to-door visits, phone calls or mail. Sometimes, they're identifying friends, coworkers and neighbors who can speak to them on a more personal level to pressure them to vote.
In many ways, Riley said she fits the profile of a person who may be targeted. She's a recent transplant to the swing state from Republican-leaning Missouri and a "strong (Christian) woman of faith," she said. She also has been visiting online news sites to read local and national news on religion and politics.
Three months ago, Riley had entered her basic profile data when she created a Facebook account, clicked on ads on the site and browsed online shopping portals. More recently, she said has been in heated conversations via email and online chats with religious and conservative-leaning friends about the elections. She said she has "probably" visited the Obama and Romney campaign websites, which deposit "cookies" on users' computer that have the potential to track websites people visit.
Officials in the Obama and Romney campaigns did not reply to interview requests from The Huffington Post, but both campaigns have spoken about the importance of reaching out to religious voters. Officials from both campaigns have spoken without attribution in recent in articles about their reliance on data vendors. Mark DeMoss, a public relations consultant who works with religious organizations and is a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, said he is not involved in voter targeting and did not "know the extent to which the campaign is mailing and calling," but "they are doing it."
At the same time, independent organizations are publicly making use of the same data mining tactics. They include United in Purpose, a website and nonprofit run by Bill Dallas, a California-based conservative evangelical who made it his goal this year to identify and register 5 million conservative Christian voters using data on their habits. (Dallas did not reply to an interview request). They also include the Faith and Freedom Coalition, run by the veteran political strategist and former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed, which has collected profiles of 17.1 million registered voters in 15 key states with large evangelical populations.
White evangelicals accounted for about 26 percent of voters in 2008 and largely voted Republican, though Obama made significant inroads. Despite fears that Romney's Mormon faith or his former pro-choice position as a Massachusetts governor would hurt his support among the demographic, polls have shown him to be faring strongly. Increasing evangelicals' turnout in states such as Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, Florida, and North Carolina may give Romney a boost.
The Obama campaign also is looking to increase turnout among its supporters in the same demographic. Specialists in voter targeting have fanned out across several states on behalf of the president's campaign.
"Odds are more likely that if one attends a religious service that they are more likely to vote Republican," said an Obama campaign voter-targeting official who did not have authorization to speak on the topic and requested anonymity. "But when you find out more about the individual ... Do they subscribe to an outdoor magazine, are they on the REI mailing list? You get a more nuanced picture. Maybe it is a person who thinks we need to preserve and protect God's creation. That could mean they may support a Democrat. What micro-targeting allows us to is find that 'x percent' of voters who may be swayed."
Reed, a Romney supporter, said his organization uses voter data in a similar way.
"There is a huge amount of consumer data out there based on what you are doing on the Internet. What websites you go to, what kind of things you respond to," said Reed. "When you combine that with voter history, we just have more data on consumers than we have ever had before." He listed the kinds of data his employees look at: "church membership rolls, who has signed pro-life and anti-same sex marriage petitions, have they taken surveys about Obamacare?"
"Not any one data point would qualify you as an evangelical conservative," Reed said. "We track 171 different data points. If 14 or more click, you go into our database."