When Lindsey Schuh Cortés ’02 was a student in the Cornell in Washington program, she witnessed the aftermath of one of the most contentious presidential elections in modern history: Bush vs. Gore. “I had these grand illusions of an inauguration being all pomp and circumstance–and it was, but that election was so divisive,” Cortés recalls. “On one side of the street, people were cheering at the parade, and on the other there were protests. It was so stark, how politics had played itself out. I was hooked.”
Today, the former American studies major–a self-confessed “political junkie”–is in the thick of it. Cortés is CEO of Blue Labs, a D.C.-based data analytics firm that advises Democratic political campaigns. It also works with companies and nonprofits that share its progressive agenda–for example, a coalition of New Jersey healthcare providers, for whom it identified “super users” of emergency services who could be directed toward preventive care. “We do a bunch of corporate work, but nothing that crosses the line into not doing socialgood, or at least is… neutral,” she says. “We wouldn’t work for a tobacco company, for instance, or a casino.”
Founded by former staffers from the Obama presidential bids–which, Cortés says, leveraged data at a granular level unprecedented in politics–Blue Labs employs what she dubs “math and magic” to target voters, strategize, and allocate resources. These days, the firm boasts a high-profile client: Hillary for America.”I think any sophisticated campaign is starting to use these techniques, leveraging data in smart ways,” says Cortés, who came to Blue Labs from the Service Employees International Union, whose political action committee she directed. “At least on the Democratic side, it’s no longer ‘Are you using data?’; it’s ‘How are you using data?’ We’re at the table with the polling and communications and fundraising folks, figuring out how to make those pieces smarter and sharper.”
I think any sophisticated campaign is starting to use these techniques, leveraging data in smart ways.
Blue Labs’ three dozen staffers–whose academic backgrounds include math, statistics, economics, and political science–create predictive models and crunch data from a variety of sources: voter rolls, credit reporting firms, cable companies, aggregators of consumer info, and more. “They link these large data sets, so you get this rich database for every registered voter in the country,” explains Cortés, a North Dakota native who holds a master’s degree in political management from George Washington University. “So you know that not only is John Smith a registered voter in Virginia, he has voted all these times; he has an average income of X; he owns his own home; he subscribes to these magazines. You have all these data points and you can start leveraging that to find similarities.” Then, by polling a representative sample of residents, the researchers can ascertain where any one person falls on a scale of 0 to 100 in terms of whether they’re likely to vote–and if so, which candidate they’d support. “If they’re never going to vote, even if they support your candidate, don’t worry about them,” she says. “If they are going to vote, will they vote for your candidate? Because if not, also don’t waste your time. It’s that cross-section between ‘Who are your supporters?’ and ‘How can we get them to turn out to vote?’ that we leverage the data to identify. Then you can say, ‘These are the people I have to talk to–but if I get extra money I can work my way down the list, because these other people are persuadable.’ “
Such analyses can also help campaigns get the most bang for their buck in terms of advertising and outreach, pinpointing the best way to approach a particular voter–be it via a phone call, door knock, e-mail, or media placement. For Terry McAuliffe’s successful campaign for governor of Virginia, for example, Blue Labs’ number-crunching revealed that instead of buying pricey prime-time TV ads, they could reach many of their desired targets during “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” “I Love Lucy” reruns on Nick at Nite, and the “Judge Joe Brown” reality show in the afternoon. “The way that modeling used to be done was that you were looking for ‘soccer moms’ or ‘NASCAR dads,’ which was a proxy for ‘men in this age range who have these demographics,’ because that was the best we could do,” Cortés says. “But now we know so much more at the individual level: ‘Don’t knock on my door–I’m not going to open it–but you can probably find me online between these hours.’ “
Cortés acknowledges that such profiling could strike some voters as, well . . . a bit creepy. But she stresses that the data Blue Labs uses is publicly brokered–and is similar to what companies employ to, say, send targeted coupons to potential customers. “The data is out there,” she says. “Every time you swipe your [loyalty] card, those companies are collecting data: ‘Because you bought toothpaste, you probably need a toothbrush.’ We’re leveraging publically available data to individualize the way people are reached out to, and that is not a bad thing. If I’m not even registered to vote, I probably won’t receive a ton of campaign mail, because there’s no use.”
As Cortés chats in Blue Labs’ offices just blocks from the White House, another fraught presidential campaign is under way. So CAM had to ask: what does this veteran politico make of the Republican frontrunner? “I can’t explain Donald Trump,” she says. “Well, I can–but in the context of Bernie Sanders.” Cortés goes on to opine that both candidates have attracted Americans who feel overlooked and disenfranchised; it’s just a question of whether they blame elites (Sanders) or outsiders (Trump). “There are big swaths of people who didn’t vote at all in 2014 who have turned out for the primaries, which is crazy,” she says. “Historically, the best predictor of turnout is past participation, but this cycle is turning that on its head. It’s forcing us to be sharper, to look at what’s really happening with the electorate. Understanding how to harness that shift–that’s where data is key. Especially for inconsistent voters, understanding what their issues are and where they’re persuadable will be the only way for a candidate to win. Data is so much more important now, because conventional wisdom and gut instinct are kind of out the window.”