Jonathan Alter (copy)

Joe Biden campaign volunteers make phone calls for the presidential candidate Saturday, November 2, 2019. Data helps the campaigns know which voters to call. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

COLUMBIA — Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang recently sent out an email to voters with a slightly ominous subject line: "Your data is worth more than you know."

The thrust of the ensuing message was about Yang's policy proposal to strengthen legal protections for Americans' personal data, which he notes has become increasingly valuable in the technology-driven 21st century economy.

But in a somewhat ironic twist, Yang's email also served another purpose — the same purpose as the vast majority of emails from political candidates of all stripes: collecting more data from voters or, better yet, their money.

Click on a link in Yang's email and you can "show your support" for his proposal by submitting your name, email address and zip code. Once that's done, you get taken to another page where you can double down that support by donating to his campaign.

That email is one of a countless mass of similar messages that will hit inboxes all over South Carolina this campaign season seeking the same thing as the clipboard-wielding volunteers greeting attendees at campaign rallies or the canvassers knocking on doors: more information from you to refine the campaign's outreach.

Among dozens of other points, campaigns want to know whether you typically vote, whether you might vote in the next election, which candidates you are considering voting for, whether you are open to changing your mind, what issues impact your voting decision and what your general interests are.

Some of that information can be purchased from existing databases, such as the S.C. Democratic Party's voter file. All the new information that's gathered over the course of a campaign can be used to supplement those files and is unique to each candidate, creating something of an arms race to collect the best data.

The data helps campaigns with limited resources target voters as efficiently as possible, charting the course for which voters make most sense to contact.

"We can target people based on a set of demographic data points or on interest data points or on voting history data points and we're not wasting money a) talking to people who would probably never vote for us or b) talking to people who aren't even registered to vote or won't participate," said Jay Parmley, executive director of the S.C. Democratic Party.

Political operatives will often describe data as the lifeblood of modern campaigns. 

"Not having good data on a presidential campaign is like playing baseball blindfolded," said S.C. Democratic strategist Tyler Jones. 

The importance of data to modern campaigns also spurred the emergence of unscrupulous tactics.

Data firm Cambridge Analytica rocketed to political stardom in the 2016 campaign with claims that it could deliver sophisticated psychological profiles of conservative voters for the Ted Cruz and Donald Trump campaigns — only for revelations to later come out that the firm had violated Facebook's terms of service to obtain data.

The recent resignation of a South Carolina staffer on Tom Steyer's campaign over allegations that he had downloaded volunteer data collected by Kamala Harris' campaign underscored just how valuable a commodity the information has become.

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Some S.C. voters also express a sense that their privacy is being invaded when they receive solicitations from campaigns for which they never signed up.

Earl Bridges, a Daniel Island voter who hosts a travel television show, has been inundated with text messages from an array of 2020 presidential campaigns. The messages were all actually directed toward his wife, an example of how messy the data can be.

When Bridges responded to the messages asking how they got his number, volunteers for the campaigns often responded that they had no idea. Even more knowledgeable campaign staff would likely have a hard time tracing back the number to its original source, Parmley said.

"I'm not super cynical, I just want to know who has my data and how I fix it," Bridges said. "We're vigilant about my personally identifiable information and I'm just at a loss."

In the long-run, the data collection serves as another reason why both of the major South Carolina political parties benefit from the state's First-in-the-South primary status.

Democrats and Republicans often make agreements with the campaigns to receive some of the data they collected in the state after the race is over — meaning those messages are unlikely to stop anytime soon, particularly for the most reliable voters.

Follow Jamie Lovegrove on Twitter @jslovegrove.

Jamie Lovegrove is a political reporter covering the South Carolina Statehouse, congressional delegation and campaigns. He previously covered Texas politics in Washington for The Dallas Morning News and in Austin for the Texas Tribune.