How The Presidential Candidates Spy On Their Supporters

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Photo by Dennis van Zuijlekom

(Last Updated March 8th 2016)

If you follow politics, it’s no secret that campaigns on either side of the aisle have invested in using data and analytics over the last decade in search of an edge.

Yet most people don’t realize the scope of the digital tracking technologies that presidential candidates are leveraging in real-time across the internet, especially on their own website visitors.

Candidates’ websites send personal data and information from every visit to a plethora of advertising networks, including well-known platforms like Google and Facebook, as well as smaller specialized networks like Outbrain and Criteo.

And personal data is also being sent to organizations that few people have heard of – companies like The Groundwork, which is dedicated to powering data insights for Hillary Clinton’s campaign (and whose homepage is just an inscrutable symbol with no information), and Victory Passport, a right-leaning company powering both the Ted Cruz and Donald Trump campaigns.

To understand how the presidential candidates are using data in 2016, we analyzed the top 10 remaining presidential candidates’ websites (as of Feb 9th) for 3 key categories of technology involved in transferring personal information on website visitors: 1) Politically-affiliated technology tools and networks, 2) Advertising technology and data platforms 3) User analytics tools.

All our analysis was performed via a combination of our own investigation, forensic analysis of website data transmission, and data from Builtwith.com and Ghostery. We also inspected the data that is sent back and forth to these platforms for clues into how this information is used.


Tracking technologies

Here’s how the candidates stack up in terms of how many different technology tools they are using, with each one using an average of 11 tracking technologies:

Total Tracker Breakdown

Candidate Ads, tracking, data User Analytics Political Networks Total
Hillary Clinton 19 4 1 24
Ted Cruz 16 2 1 19
Bernie Sanders 9 3 1 13
Ben Carson 8 3 1 12
Jeb Bush 8 2 1 11
Carly Fiorina 6 2 2 10
John Kasich 3 2 1 6
Chris Christie 3 2 1 6
Marco Rubio 2 2 1 5
Donald Trump 3 1 1 5

Powered by the early digital success of Howard Dean (whose campaign spawned the political technology firm Blue State Digital), recent Democrats and in particular Barack Obama’s campaigns in both 2008 and 2012 have leveraged advanced technology heavily. Some have even credited those efforts as the deciding factor in Obama’s wins. In fact, the Republican National Committee was so badly beaten that in 2012 they commissioned an “election autopsy report” that concluded much of their loss was due to insufficient capabilities in data and analytics.

Hillary Clinton is keeping that Democratic tradition alive, with a total of 24 trackers on her site, including 19 advertising technologies alone, 4 different types of analytics tools, and a political network platform.

And as expected, when it comes to using technologies that no other candidate is using, Hillary is far out in front again, with 13.  This is potentially an indicator of ways to get a digital “edge”, whether it’s using advertising networks other candidates aren’t using, data enrichment platforms to connect data like names and addresses to anonymous website visitors, or analytics tools that help derive insights on who’s getting involved and to what degree.  Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, the candidates with the next most amount of unique advertising technologies are far behind with 4 unique tools each.

Unique Tracker Breakdown

Candidate # Unique Technologies
Hillary Clinton 12
Bernie Sanders 4
Ted Cruz 4
Jeb Bush 3
Carly Fiorinia 2
Ben Carson 1
Marco Rubio 1
Chris Christie 0
Donald Trump 0
John Kasich 0

Chris Christie, Donald Trump, and John Kasich all don’t have any unique technologies or platform being used – any technology edge in their campaigns is going to have to come from elsewhere.


Politically-affiliated technologies

It gets really interesting when you start looking at the politically-affiliated technology platforms that are being used.

There are 6 different platforms being used among the 10 candidates, with every candidate using at least one.

Political Affiliation Candidate Platforms
Democratic Bernie Sanders Actblue
Democratic Hillary Clinton The Groundwork
Republican Ben Carson CMDI
Republican Carly Fiorinia CMDI, Crowdskout
Republican Chris Christie CMDI
Republican Donald Trump Victory Passport
Republican Jeb Bush Revv
Republican John Kasich CMDI
Republican Marco Rubio Revv
Republican Ted Cruz Victory Passport

On the Democratic side, Actblue (used by Bernie Sanders), is a Democratic-affiliated fundraising platform that shares account information and data across a slew of democratic candidates and causes.  In fact, you can donate directly to Hillary Clinton as well via ActBlue, however she doesn’t return the favor and enable the platform on her site.

The Groundwork, used by Hillary Clinton, is an Eric Schmidt-backed technology startup that counts the Clinton campaign as it’s only political client. It’s founders are ex-Obama operatives who were instrumental in his wins in 2008 and 2012.

On the Republican side, four candidates are using technology from CMDI, a stalwart technology provider that has been in business since 1981 and only works with Republicans. CMDI allows candidates to take donations online via it’s WidgetMakr tool, as well as plugs into their own database program called Crimson used to track individual donors and supporters.

Three other candidates use a newer Rep platform called Revv, which positions itself as the right’s answer to Actblue. Interestingly, Revv says on its homepage that no personal data is shared across candidates, and it is simply designed to lower friction for donations (as similar to ActBlue, if you’ve logged in to one affiliated site, you can one-click donate to another that uses the same platform).

Both Ted Cruz and Donald Trump use Victory Passport, a right-affiliated donation and data platform.

While the only candidate from Silicon Valley, Carly Fiorina, is in the middle of the pack in terms of overall technology usage on her site, she’s the only candidate leveraging two politically-affiliated platforms (both CDMI and a platform called Crowdskout).  Crowdskout is a non-partisan database tool used similarly to CDMI’s Crimson for tracking relationships with donors and supporters.


Advertising Technologies

When it comes to advertising technology, there are 15 different ad tracking technologies that are used by at least two candidates:

Ad Technology Platform % of Candidates Using Candidates Using
Google 100% (All Candidates)
Facebook 100% (All Candidates)
Appnexus 40% Sanders, Fiorina, Clinton, Cruz
Twitter 40% Carson, Fiorina, Christie, Cruz
BlueKai 30% Carson, Clinton, Cruz
eXelate 30% Carson, Clinton, Cruz
MediaMath 30% Carson, Bush, Cruz
Neustar 30% Fiorina, Kasich, Cruz
OpenX 30% Sanders, Clinton, Bush
Rapleaf 30% Sanders, Clinton, Cruz
Adroll 20% Sanders, Fiorina
Bing Ads 20% Bush, Cruz
mediaForge 20% Carson, Cruz
Rubicon Project 20% Clinton, Cruz
Signal 20% Trump, Cruz

In the advertising category, 100% of the candidates are using both Google and Facebook’s ad technologies to either target visitors offsite or retarget them across the web.  Microsoft’s Bing ad network both lags far behind among candidates (and in market share), and is being utilized by only Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz.

There are 21 different advertising technologies being used by only one candidate:

Technology Used Only By One Candidate Candidate Using
Advertising.com Hillary Clinton
Bidswitch Hillary Clinton
Conversant Hillary Clinton
Criteo Hillary Clinton
Datalogix Hillary Clinton
Drawbridge Ted Cruz
Index Exchange Hillary Clinton
Krux Digital Hillary Clinton
Linkedin Hillary Clinton
Lotame Ted Cruz
Netmining Hillary Clinton
Outbrain Hillary Clinton
Perfect Audience Ben Carson
Pubmatic Jeb Bush
Quantcast Bernie Sanders
Qubit Bernie Sanders
Resonate Networks Jeb Bush
Trade Desk Ted Cruz
Tribal Fusion Hillary Clinton
TubeMogul Jeb Bush
Yahoo Advertising Bernie Sanders

Most of the advertising platforms being utilized are used to for targeting ad buying across the web and mobile devices.  There are some interesting exceptions – for example, while LinkedIn might one of the best places to drum up the working professional vote, Hillary Clinton is the only candidate utilizing LinkedIn’s ad network.

Additionally, there are other notable technologies being used like Rapleaf, a technology platform now owned by data giant Acxiom that appends demographic data to email profiles (used by Clinton, Cruz, and Sanders), and Drawbridge, a platform that links user profiles across different devices, which is only used by Ted Cruz.


Analytics Technologies

From an analytics perspective, everyone except Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina are using Google Analytics, which is Google’s free website visitors analytics tool and from which the anonymized data collected is used heavily by Google in their advertising efforts.

Mixpanel (a web and mobile analytics tool) is being used by CDMI (and thus shows up on the candidates websites) and the data it collects can reveal that a website visitor has been hanging out on another candidates’ website.

In the data below decoded from a “track” call sent to Mixpanel when visiting John Kasich’s website (with personally identifying information obscured), notice that CMDI can see that a user has previously visited Ben Carson’s page.

{“event”: “mp_page_view”,”properties”: {“$os”: “Mac OS X”,”$browser”: “Chrome”,”$referrer”: “https://johnkasich.com/donate/?sc=home1,”$referring_domain”: “johnkasich.com“,”mp_lib”: “web”,”distinct_id”: “XXXXXX”,”$initial_referrer”: https://www.bencarson.com/contribute,”$initial_referring_domain”: “www.bencarson.com“,”mp_page”: “https://spark.widgetmakr.com/render/XXXX?….}


Email Technologies:

All of the candidates appear to use some sort of cloud email technology.  It appears that only Donald Trump and Jeb Bush use Microsoft Office 365 for email, while the other candidates either use Google Apps to power their email.

Candidate Cloud Email Platform
Bernie Sanders Google Apps
Hillary Clinton Google Apps
Ben Carson Google Apps
Carly Fiorinia Google Apps
Chris Christie Google Apps
Donald Trump Microsoft Office 365
Jeb Bush Microsoft Office 365
John Kasich Google Apps
Marco Rubio Google Apps
Ted Cruz Google Apps

Summary

Using data and analytics this far into the Internet Age is a lot more than just buying donor lists for get-out-the-vote ground game operations and phone banking.

While the candidates vary dramatically in terms of the total advertising technologies leveraged, they have all made sure they are using a politically-affiliated platform to help facilitate donations and analyze donor behavior.

Because in politics, no matter how smart you are with data and analytics, money is still king.

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