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Microtargeting in Political Campaigns


Although microtargeting is not a term typically identified by your average voter it is becoming increasingly useful to successful political operatives.  Microtargeting is the use of direct marketing that involves predictive consumer analysis which identifies groups and subgroups, their interests, lifestyles, and ways to reach out to specific voters.  After identifying certain niches in the electorate, a campaign then uses a variety of communication tactics – direct mail, television, radio, internet, email, telephone calls, text messaging and even home visits constructing a range of messages to assemble support for fundraising, volunteering, campaign events and eventually GOTV.  Microtargeting relies on a multitude of variables including consumer information, often purchased, to craft a tailored message to a subgroup based on specific data gathered about that subgroup.

Although microtargeting can be very specific and instrumental in building a strong base for a campaign organization, it relies upon a fairly simple way of connecting dots and making predictions.  Here’s an example: Almost daily, at least every few days, many of us will receive an email from senior officials within either the Democratic or Republican parties, sometimes even from the President, Vice-President, or First Lady.  The emails are typically informal and seem very personalized.  They address the recipient by their first name, cater dialogue to a voter or donors specific interests and more often than not conclude with some request typically soliciting a donation.  At first glance this isn’t typically noticed as anything advanced or unusual but it’s merely the beginning in a long line of tactics that utilize a plethora of information so detailed and personalized that it would give the NSA a run for its money.

You know, of course, that political campaigns on your specific side of the aisle have your e-mail address. You may not have realized that they also have your phone number and know where you’re registered to vote in addition to the details about whether that’s a house or an apartment building, and whether you rent or own. Good campaigns likely know how many children you have, what you do for a living, whether you’re married or single and how many other people reside in your household. They know your household income and even details about your credit history including your debt, what kind of debt it is and how many credit cards you have. Campaigns know what magazines and catalogs you get and details about where you regularly acquire your news, whether it’s  from cable TV, the local newspaper or online. Because of advances in technology they can tell what time of day you check your emails and what types of messages and messaging are more likely to get a response, take an action, or acquire a contribution.

Obama for America has one of the most extensive and advanced e-mail lists ever developed by a campaign or political organization.  The list of Obama’s voter information is one-of-a-kind; the most sophisticated voter database ever built and will be used and built upon for many elections to come. “Using a combination of the information that supporters are volunteering, data the campaign is digging up on its own and powerful market research tools first developed for corporations, Obama’s staff has combined new online organizing with old-school methods of voter outreach,” says Mike Madden in a Salon article about Obama’s supermarketing machine, “ [the database] is used for hitting people with messages tailored as closely as possible to what they’re likely to want to hear.”

The way Obama for America redefined microtargeting and its uses were detrimental to the campaign’s success.  The tactics they used created a significant advantage in many areas, most notably advertising and mass communication but also in areas that broke new ground including direct voter contact through a well-ran ground game.  A field program could now effectively, and with pin-point accuracy, appropriate different literature, coordinate efforts with different radio and television advertisements and even knock different doors and make different phone calls in an attempt to single out a subgroup and market to them, specifically, based on a plethora of different information collected and analyzed.  The campaign could purchase different radio, magazine and newspaper ads that would be most likely to reach this group and top it all off with a volunteer from their community knocking at a voters door to reinforce the message.

If a campaign becomes aware of an individual who subscribes to BuckMasters magazine, and has a sporadic voting record, in an area with a DPI (Democratic Performance Index) it’s likely this person will receive literature that is catered to sportsmen and second amendment rights.  Because the DPI in this area is a fairly high percentage, most campaigns would take extra steps to ensure this person makes it to the polls – encourage one stop early voting, provide a ride, or absentee ballot requests.  The voter would be invited to any and all events organized regarding even a mention of the second amendment.  These steps make a campaign personalized once again.  A voter feels as if the candidate is directly marketing to them, because in reality, they are.

There are many instances in which using microtargeting allows the unique opportunity to market to specific subgroups, although, on the other hand, there are also important variables that allow the campaign to recognize when a voter is a waste of time and that it’s more cost effective to ignore them.  Issues of pro-life and pro-choice are great examples especially when certain issues are ingrained in a voter’s religion or belief structure.  If a voter is radically pro-life and a candidate has a pro-choice voting record that he or she is proud of and often publicizes, then there are situations when trying to acquire the voter’s support is going to be unsuccessful.  Another example is 2nd amendment rights.  If a candidate has a voting record of being in favor of gun control or even banning firearms, then marketing to a lifelong National Rifle Association member is likely to be a waste of campaign resources.

Microtargeting has only been publicly used for around a decade.  The Republican National Committee was first to utilize these tactics.  TargetPoint is a leading Republican firm that does microtargeting.  Its employees reach out to potential voters via consumer data, census figures and other research not previously in the typical campaigner’s bag of tricks. Using the same statistical modeling that retail firms use to find likely customers for soda, gum or washing machines, TargetPoint consultants find correlations between voters’ political ideology and their lifestyles. Other firms like SpatiaLogic and Caliper Corp. are cranking out sophisticated technology that crunches consumer and other data with maps, so candidates in any party can target their votes to a level unimaginable only a few years ago.[1]

“It’s market segmentation,” said Alex Gage, TargetPoint’s president. “We’re separating which voters are the most profitable, then finding what is it they like about my product. In this case, my candidate.”  Although TargetPoint was a pioneer in political microtargeting, one of the first firms to make large advances in microtargeting utilizing software was SpatiaLogic, founded by Charlie Lindauer.  Lindauer’s designers wrote software that allowed businesses to map areas they wanted to target and visually represent their data. The software would take an area and “geocode” it – assign longitude and latitude coordinates based on home addresses. Once the information was coded, users could load in their own data about consumers and let the maps organize the numbers visually.  A campaign could look at a city map and instantly know which areas to concentrate resources and which areas should be left alone.

Although many complex equations are used to identify relationships, predict voter turnout and single out subgroups, the main idea behind microtargeting is a simple one.  Identify variables, connect the dots, and make accurate predictions based upon a variety of information.  When George Bush launched his campaign they didn’t have sufficient voter lists. Most precincts were 60 to 40 split between parties, causing difficulty for the party to reach out to areas with a Republican minority.  By implementing these tactics they could explain to voters the reasons they should vote in a way which emphasized the voters’ specific interests.  The way the Obama campaign has stood out by using this strategy revolved around field implementation.  The campaign begins with a base of information including many of the variables that were mentioned above.  As the field program progresses information is continuously being collected and stored which ultimately builds up a strong base of detailed voter data.

The two major political parties in the United States each have their individual databases in which information is collected, stored and analyzed.  The Republican National Committee uses a program called VoteVault in contrast to the Democratic National Committee’s use of VoteBuilder.  Both programs are state-of-the-art databases built for two basic purposes – 1) Getting the candidate elected.  2) Building the party by maintaining a foundation of a wide variety of voter information.  With every election, win or lose, the party builds upon the previous work and acquired information to gear up for the next race.

A campaign that is starting from scratch with a candidate that isn’t an incumbent and hasn’t held or ran for political office before will typically begin with a base of information, stored in appropriate databases and built upon throughout the course of the campaign.  The candidate’s campaign, once winning the primary, will likely receive a bulk of information from their party.  The Secretary of State or chief election officer in each individual state provides a list of those registered to vote along with voting histories to state party officials.  This list is dumped into a database and used to add facts about the voter.  Although every campaign and committee can have different access to variables, information and activist codes, each of them also enters the information they acquire themselves either through purchasing market information or direct voter contact.  This information is often highly secured and in the case of the Obama campaign, very seldom shared fully with down-ticket candidates.  When a persuasion/identification call is placed, a home is canvassed, or a survey is completed there is basic information obtained including likely party affiliation, support of a candidate, most important issue this election, whether or not they can volunteer, etc.  Every campaign will push to obtain different information based on their objectives and the obstacles they face during that election cycle.  This information is stored in the database and used in different capacities throughout the rest of the election until the data culminates into a surprisingly accurate vehicle to carry the campaign through GOTV.  A campaign organization uses this information combined with microtargeting data to effectively reach out to voters in certain communities.

The use of microtargeting is now very essential to compete in modern campaigns.  Many elections often come down to merely ten to twenty votes per precinct.  In 2004, with every vote broken down and divided by the number or precincts, George W. Bush beat John Kerry by less than nine votes per precinct, nationally.  A campaign’s inability to reach out to voters, one-by-one, plucking votes from any possible area, could cost them an election and possibly end a politician’s career.  It is hard to determine what is in store for the future of campaign tactics but one thing is absolutely certain, microtargeting will play an instrumental role.  Whether a field program is working in areas of rural Oklahoma or knocking doors in the suburbs of Chicago, before every call is placed and every ad is purchased, a good campaign organization knows when, why and how to reach these demographics.


[1] The Political Bullseye: Persuading People with Microtargeting. David Weigel.

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