Over the course of 2017 we developed an obsession with the Gubernatorial race in Virginia and delivered two separate insight reports. The election on 7 November 2017 saw Democrats win by the largest margin for more than 30 years.
Our first visit to Washington DC saw us talking to the Podesta Group on the morning after the Virginia Gubernatorial Primaries in which centrist Democrat Ralph Northam had defeated a Bernie-like opponent in Tom Perriello. Our overall task was to find messages that could reasonably unite both sets of Democrat supporters and even pull in a few Trump supporters.
Signify used machine learning to analyse election-related posts on Twitter and Facebook from more than 72,000 individuals. We correctly identified the three key issues for voters as Healthcare, Gun Control and Immigration. Gratifyingly for us, these were the three top issues cited in an NBC exit poll five months later. If you’d followed the race on TV, you would think the key issues were Confederate statues and MS-13. But the things that matter to voters are much more fundamental – and they don’t change.
Northam’s supporters were also nervous about his position on guns. As a paediatric doctor, his position in favour of gun control was not something his advisers could change, but in Virginia – home state of the NRA – it is traditional for Democrats and Republicans alike to field candidates who are pro-gun. This time round, the slate included many F-rated candidates who were strong advocates of #gunsense. But how would this play for voters?
We looked at the 11 times the candidate had mentioned gun control or guns or shootings on Facebook or Twitter and the more than 5,000 people who had responded to him. Of those respondents just 5% were against some form of gun control (with the overwhelming majority praising Northam for standing up to the NRA) and of those opposed, most were out of state, and to the right of the Republican party. In other words (a fact that continues to be true) for Democratic candidates in Virginia there is zero risk, and considerable upside in opposing the gun lobby. This turns conventional wisdom on its head – but was supported by the performance of local candidates up and down the ticket.
On the strength of this analysis, we were invited to talk to the DNC organising team as the race took off in October 2017. We presented a number of issues-driven insights and stratagems, but one fact leapt out for the campaign team. It concerned voter suppression.
Our insight was based on a ShareScore analysis of the top political stories in Virginia over the past three years, and it highlighted a massive issue which was well known to local politicians, but completely off the news agenda. One of the great benefits of machine-driven analysis is the removal of inherent bias and the ability to look at long term issues rather than whatever is trending or in the news. Our insight focussed on a dormant issue that had been current a year before – but was still affecting almost a million people in VA.
That issue was – driving license suspension. One in six Virginians have had their driving license retained over a court fine – and this overwhelmingly affects less well-off demographics. With no license, voters lack the means to travel and the required photo ID to vote. This state of affairs been addressed by the previous Governor back in 2016, but the fix had not had time to take effect and there were still hundreds of thousands of citizens unable to vote. We could see them talking about the issue still.
Our report to the DNC highlighted this issue and enabled them to change some of their on-the-ground communications which were largely powered by text messages. It was thrilling for Signify to see text messages going out that encouraged voters to find a second form of photo ID, and to organise or offer ride shares to the polls.
In the event, turnout was high for an off year with long queues at the polls despite the bad weather. And the result was an unexpectedly large victory for Democrats with a nine-point swing. This is what we started Signify to do: find important issues, help candidates connect with their voters, and win.