How Data Drives Our Work

About Us: Progressive Turnout Project is the largest voter contact organization in the country, specifically dedicated to mobilizing the Democratic Party and defending democracy. Our mission: rally Democrats to vote.

Data taken from our 2020 impact report

At Progressive Turnout Project, we’re dedicated to data. And that data-driven approach means we are always working to improve our innovative voter contact programs in pursuit of more impactful results. We’re able to test new and exciting ideas while also constantly improving the tactics that have already proven successful. Here’s how it works:

We start with an idea. Whether that be training folks to mobilize their friends and family or volunteers sending out postcards, our next step is to ask the important questions. Who should we be reaching out to? What messages will resonate best? Where should the program be run? What tools can we use? When do we start?

Our answers to these questions are rooted in numbers– this sets us apart from other voter contact organizations. Our data team collects and analyzes data, and then advises us on how best to run our programs. John, our Data and Analytics Director describes the team’s job as falling into three categories:

  • Infrastructure and operationalization: Managing the contacts [voter information] that are coming in and making sure we have all that data organized.
  • Targeting: Identifying the populations that we think are most likely to turn out to vote if we give them a push or contact them.
  • Analysis and reporting: Creating reports, doing analyses and also running experiments to make sure that we’re doing what we do effectively.

And it works. In 2021 we placed over 150 Campaign Fellows, contacted over 13 thousand Virginia voters through our Community Mobilizer program, and sent over 8 million postcards.

We interviewed some real experts, members of the data team at PTP, to find out more about the ins and outs of data analysis and how it can drive an organization. Here’s what they had to say:

John — Data and Analytics Director

John first started working in politics in high school, serving as an organizing fellow for then-Senator Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. After attending Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, John transitioned to the data and analytics space in 2014 and has since worked on a number of progressive campaigns across the country, including Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton’s presidential bids.

What’s the best book you’ve ever read?

Probably the most influential book I’ve ever read, which is kind of the reason why I went into this field actually, is called The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg. It’s a deep dive into the Obama analytics department and the history of data-driven campaigning.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I’m fascinated by voter contact. How do you motivate people to go out and exercise their right to vote? And how do you persuade people to hear your cause, and so on.

There’s obviously a lot of different tactics, but something I really love about PTP in particular is our willingness to innovate and try new things. Having that opportunity to experiment and innovate, and try new things is as far and away my favorite part of this role.

What does it mean to be data driven?

What it boils down to is making sure that we’re using the information that we have at our disposal to ensure that we’re being as efficient as we possibly can. Can we demonstrate and prove that we are using the correct tactics in order to be as efficient as possible as a campaign with our resources, both in money and time?

What’s been your favorite project that you’ve worked on?

I first came here as part of the Relational Organizing program. That’s something that just really fascinates me, and I think it is just such groundbreaking important work.

People hadn’t figured everything out yet, so it was really exciting to get to innovate in that regard. I really think it’s gonna be a game changer, both here at PTP and across the campaign space, so it was really, really fun to be a part of that.

How do you make sure that you’re accurately interpreting the data that you collect?

That is such an important question. The gold standard is experiments. Oftentimes, if we have an outstanding question, we’ll do what’s called a randomized control trial. We have a treatment that we want to test, we hold a subset of the population as a control, and then we run the program. The treatment group gets the treatment, the control doesn’t, and then afterwards we analyze the results.

Continuous testing is what it comes down to. We do a lot to ensure that our data integrity is solid. It’s a baseline, because if you can’t rely on your data, everything else downstream is not going to be very useful.

Is there anything that the average person should be wary of when they’re looking at data?

Oh, that’s such a good question. Always question the methodology of what’s being told to you. Data is one of those things where it’s very easy to create a narrative by selectively choosing or omitting various details. And I see a lot of that. When you see a number or a statistic, be skeptical. Think: What’s the agenda here? How is this collected? What’s this really mean?

What are you most looking forward to in 2022?

I love voter contact programs. That’s what I live and breathe. So I’m really excited to build the program that PTP is going to run, see that through, and hopefully move the needle in favor of our candidates. We’re still kind of figuring out what that looks like. But I’m confident that we will be able to do so and it’ll be interesting.

Benno — Deputy Data Director of Experimentation

Benno applies his mathematical modeling and data analysis experience to assist the progressive field organizers at PTP. Prior to working at PTP, he volunteered for many local and national progressive campaigns while also completing his PhD in applied mathematics at Princeton University and working as a data scientist for clinical trials.

How would you describe what you do?

Ideas come from all over. And they all have intuitive justification. But you don’t really know what’s going to work and when and where. The same idea could be executed in multiple ways.

We test the ideas and see if they work, see how they work, and see which ones work the best. Creating those tests and analyzing them is a slightly mathematically involved process, but we try to translate those ideas into experiments that will give us feedback on which ways of execution and performance work the best.

If you could sit down and have a discussion with anyone, who would it be?

It may be a product of my age, but I would say Lebron James. Just to understand that level of focus better. There’s just a certain level of full psychological immersion into something that I find very impressive. I’m sure there’s many other people who embody that in their own areas, but that’s the person who I think of.​​

What kind of thing do you and your team usually try to find out?

What messages are the most effective in getting people to want to vote. Where to go and when to go. Do you go only one week before the election? Or do you go back twice, starting a month before the election? Those are really the core questions, right? Like, when you think about what’s in our control, it’s: Who are you talking to? When are you talking to them? What are you saying? And all of these things get turned into experiments.

What is your favorite food?

I don’t know if this counts, but anything made in one pot.

What surprised you most about your job?

That this job exists. That’s the most surprising thing. If you asked me three years ago if this job exists, I would never have imagined that there was a role for data in this progressive organization that’s independent from the Democratic Party, but working towards similar goals.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would you live?

I feel like it’s too stereotypical to be a New Yorker and stay in New York. Latin America? Maybe improve my bilingualism and speak Spanish.

Sabrina — Deputy Data Director of Reporting

Sabrina got started in progressive politics as a volunteer for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. Before coming to PTP, she served as the Data and Content Manager at BallotReady. Sabrina enjoys biking around Chicago, shooting film photography, and listening to shoegaze. Sabrina received her B.S. in Mathematics from the University of Chicago.

How would you describe what you do?

My main role, especially during an election year, is to build reporting tools so that we can understand how well our program is running, and if we’re meeting the goals that we set for ourselves.

Our emphasis is on field work so we have tons of canvassers going out and knocking doors. I build reports that look at: How many doors are we knocking in each state? In each county or precinct? How many conversations are we having with voters? And how many people are committing to vote?

These reports help our field team figure out where things are going well, where things could use improvement, and if there are other areas that we need to prioritize.

If your team could have a mascot, what would the data team mascot be?

You ever see those Japanese cities that have cute little mascots, or like every little company has a cute little mascot? Maybe, I don’t know, a cute little bar graph that’s all smiley.

How directly would you say that the work that you do influences PTP’s programming?

PTP is a data-driven organization, so I’d like to think that [the data team’s work] influences it a lot. At the end of an election cycle, we analyze the data that we collected during the program and reflect on our work. It takes a little bit of time, but the voting records are released after an election and that’s public information. We look at all the people that we targeted and ended up talking to and see how they actually voted. We try to find trends. For example, we could see: Did we have more success contacting people at certain times of the day? Times of the week? And that can influence how we structure next cycle’s program.

If you could pick up any new hobby, what would the new hobby be?

I’d like to get better at sewing. I’m pretty horrible at it, but starting with basic stuff, learning how to mend clothing and then eventually making my own clothing. I always have really specific visions for outfits, like the specific dress or skirt that I want, and then I try to look all over for it and it doesn’t exist. It’s like…well, I guess I have to make it now, and I don’t know how to do that. So I think one of these days maybe I will figure that out.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

I really like designing and putting together the reports. I think a lot about how design is used to communicate findings, and how I can make reports more easily understandable for non-data audiences, because the data team is not who’s using the reports. It’s the field team, it’s the operations department, it’s all these other teams who are data driven. So I try to think, how can I design these reports so that our findings are presented in a really clear way so that it can be accessible. I think about the colors I choose, trying to make things colorblind friendly, the types of charts that I’m using, what’s appropriate for the situation, and how can I tell a story about our data.

What are you most looking forward to for 2022?

I am looking forward to gardening with my partner this year. We really like cooking, so we’re thinking about the things that we commonly make and what sort of things we can plant so that we could just go out to our garden and pick the ingredients that we need.

We ordered a yuzu tree, which is a type of Japanese citrus, and then a makrut lime, which is a lime found in Southeast Asia. My partner and I like to cook Japanese food and Thai food, and those ingredients are really difficult or impossible to find in the US. So, I’m really looking forward to gardening and how that’s gonna shape our cooking for this year.

Our work wouldn’t be possible without our data team; and their work wouldn’t be possible without our donors. You can help us rally Democrats to vote by applying to work with us or with a contribution.