Tech

The Wild West of political data sales can score candidates big money but raise privacy concerns. Here’s how one politician is benefiting.

  • Democrat Christy Smith’s 2022 campaign for a House seat earned $54,782 from renting supporter data.
  • That’s more than the California politician has raised from individual contributions so far in this cycle.
  • Transactions like this are increasingly common, as supporter data is increasingly valuable.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Campaigns are all about the money, and, in the 21st century, all about the data. For some candidates, those two things go hand in hand.

Former California Assemblywoman Christy Smith, a Democrat who is trying for a third time to win a House seat in the state’s 25th district, raked in nearly $55,000 from January through March by renting out supporters’ personal information to a digital consulting firm,  federal election disclosures show. 

That’s more money than she made from her actual backers’ campaign contributions — a rarity in congressional politics. 

And it highlights a political open secret of sorts: that candidates on the right and left often treat their loyal supporters’ personal information as a commodity to be monetized. 

Read more: I asked MyPillow whether it sells customer data to political committees. Mike Lindell called back — and things got interesting.

During the year’s first three months, Smith received a total of $54,782.06 in “rental list income” from Fireside Campaigns, a political communications shop in Washington, DC. By contrast, $42,501 came from individual contributions, federal records show. 

Smith officially launched her 2022 bid on March 31 but had been accepting contributions before then, according to federal records. 

It was not immediately clear what data was included in the sale, and neither the Smith campaign or Fireside Campaigns responded to requests for comment. Such lists generally include supporters’ email addresses but may include additional information, as well.

“List rentals of this type have been common for some time. What we are seeing increasingly at the moment is agencies buying lists (generally from losing candidates) and then re-selling them to their other clients,” said Jake Sticka, a vice president at the political firm Rising Tide Interactive.

Fireside Campaigns bills itself as a progressive “communications digital and communications consulting firm operating in the political space.” Firms such as these will often perform an array of digital services for a client, from purchasing and designing digital ads to sending out email fundraiser blasts to supporters.

On its website, it counts among its clients several Democratic congressional campaigns as well as the advocacy groups Black Lives Matter and Indivisible. Christy Smith for Congress is also among its clientele. 

Federal records show the campaign paid the firm $62,000 in the first quarter of 2021 for its services, including a $50,000 payment for digital ads.

Data = dollars

Supporters’ data — their names, email addresses, and phone numbers, along with other information such as voter registration status, income, and other demographic details — are extremely valuable to campaigns in part because they can be used to pump sympathetic people for donations. 

But many voters are not aware that the information they volunteer to political campaigns can be sold to other parties.

Obtain a person’s email address or cell phone number once, and you can bombard them with text messages, emails, and other communications designed to squeeze an extra donation or two into the campaign’s coffers. You can feed their data into Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms to present them with targeted ads.

Voter data is also used to identify supporters and create targeted get-out-the vote efforts, but money remains a key draw. It’s not just politicians who want this information; advocacy organizations, political action committees, parties, and digital firms all rely on the power of the list. 

Read more: Thieves stole at least $2.7 million from federal political committees during the 2020 election cycle. Biden’s campaign got hit, too.

California’s 25th House district was held by a Democrat, Katie Hill, from January to November 2019. But Hill resigned unexpectedly after right-wing media and tabloids published personal photos of her nude with a campaign staff member.  

The race to replace her invited a host of political characters that included The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur and George Papadopoulos, a Donald Trump campaign official who went to prison after getting tangled up in the Robert Mueller investigation.

Smith, a Democrat, unsuccessfully ran for the seat in 2020, losing the general election by just 333 votes.

This year, she hopes to unseat her opponent, Republican Rep. Mike Garcia, in one of the blue state’s key swing districts.

To do so, she will need strong fundraising to defeat not only the incumbent, but other Democratic challengers in the top-two primary next year. During the 2020 election, Smith raised nearly $6 million while Garcia raised almost $10 million, according to federal records compiled by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

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