Your ballot is secret. But thanks to big data, political candidates, including President Barack Obama and his presumed challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, can predict with ever greater accuracy who you’re likely to vote for, or whether you’re undecided. And they can use that data to finely-tune the messages they send you—whether through mailings, a knock at your door or the ads you see on TV—to persuade you to volunteer, give money and, ultimately, choose them on Election Day.
Marketers call it microtargeting. By mashing up data about their known supporters along with consumer data, public voter information and social media activity, Obama and Romney have built advanced statistical models for identifying which voters are likely to be in their camp, and who can be persuaded to join them.
Microtargeting can extend the margin of victory, and it can make or break a close race. In 2008, Obama won some states, including Indiana, “in part because we were able to find those tiny pockets of voters in neighborhoods that were deep red, and we were able to go after them,” says Michael Simon, principal of The Victors Group, a political consultancy. Simon ran voter targeting operations for Obama in 2008.
How Political Microtargeting Works
Since microtargeting came into mainstream use by campaigns in 2004 (when it helped former president George W. Bush to crush Sen. John F. Kerry), there’s more data than ever to help candidates learn which voters are in their camp.
The Republicans and Democrats each maintain massive files about individual voters. Microtargeting starts with these voter files, explains Will Feltus, president of National Media, a communications planning and media placement firm that works with Republican candidates. Feltus was Romney’s media advisor in 2008.
Campaigns will match the voter file against a consumer database and poll a sample of those individuals about politics, Feltus says. They’ll use the answers, along with the original data, to develop models of likely supporters. Then they’ll refine the models with more data about people with those characteristics from leading data brokers such as Acxiom, Experian and RR Donnelly.
Any information campaigns collect about individual voters, their likes and dislikes, causes they support or money they donate gets included in the mix. This year, for example, the Obama campaign has added the capability to analyze the content of blogs, Tumblr posts and other social media, says Simon.
In February, Romney won the Florida primary by nearly 15 points in part by using microtargeting models to identify likely supporters and undecided voters who had requested absentee ballots, according to a Slate.com story. The likely supporters got phone calls and mail reminding them to send in their ballots and to choose Romney. The undecideds were offered reasons Romney should get their vote. The campaign adjusted its contacts daily based on data from Florida election officials about which voters had turned in their ballots.
The Paths to Microtargeting
Campaigns have embraced microtargeting because it helps them use their resources more effectively, whether they’re mailing (or emailing) campaign pitches, buying ads, calling voters on the phone or canvassing door to door.
Pitch to the right people. Research published earlier this year by National Media correlated people’s TV viewing habits with their political leanings, down to which TV shows Democrats and Republicans prefer. “I want to know about the audiences of small cable channels,” says Feltus, where ads are less expensive and reach a well-defined audience. “There are more ways than the local news to reach voters.” For example, viewers of HDNet (which counts rock concerts and “Cheers” reruns among its programs) and Boomerang (which shows kids cartoons) tend to vote only in presidential elections. But HDNet viewers are generally independents or lean Republican, while Boomerang viewers skew toward Democrats.
Get behind enemy lines. Campaigns used to ignore precincts that voted heavily for the opposing party. Microtargeting helps them find “diamonds in the rough,” says Simon—voters who are similar to a candidate’s known supporters, but whose leanings aren’t known or who may be undecided. Campaigns can then target those voters directly, via mailings, phone calls or visits from field workers.
Send the right message. Voters care about issues. Traditionally, campaigns identified key concerns through phone surveys. But social media offers more, and meatier, intelligence. “We’re able to see who has tweeted about a particular issue or done a Facebook post or blogged,” says Ken Strasma, an Obama advisor and president of Strategic Telemetry, which provides microtargeting and other data-based services to political campaigns. The information can beef up statistical models, and it may be matched to records on individual voters, giving field workers and fundraisers ammunition for more persuasive pitches.
Lessons for Corporate Marketers
Presidential campaigns have “been on the leading front for customer relationship management, collecting data on potential targets, and profiling to better target messages,” observes David Rogers, author of The Network is Your Customer, who teaches digital marketing strategy at Columbia University. Their work holds lessons for corporate marketers who want to use customer data more effectively.
According to Lisa Arthur, CMO with marketing software vendor Aprimo, the microtargeting successes of candidates for president, Senate and the House of Representatives prove companies can more narrowly segment millions of customers. “Typically we have avid advocates of a brand, those that could swing either way, and those that don’t buy in,” says Arthur. If marketers could learn who those uncommitted shoppers are, they could target them in a more compelling way.
A Short History of Voter Targeting
1800s: Politics is personal. Political parties and campaigns rely on partisan newspapers, songs and slogans to get their messages out, and send supporters door to door to pitch their candidates, and, on Election Day, bring voters to the polls.
1936: George Gallup uses a scientific poll to predict Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reelection. Roosevelt subsequently becomes the first president to use private polls to guide campaign and policy decisions.
1952: Dwight D. Eisenhower uses television ads depicting him answering questions from ordinary people in order to build trust with voters. Twelve years later, a negative ad linking Barry Goldwater with the risk of nuclear war (shown just once) helps President Lyndon Johnson to victory.
2004: George W. Bush and John F. Kerry amass personal data about voters, which they use to tailor messages to narrow segments of supporters and undecided voters. Bush benefits from the GOP’s head start: the party began developing a national voter database in the mid-1990s.
2008: Barack Obama taps into social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace to engage voters, as well as incorporates social features into his campaign website. His aggressive use of social media to engage voters helps him beat John McCain.
2012: Obama and Mitt Romney gather data from social media about voters’ opinions and use it to hone their messages as well as beef up their statistical models of likely supporters.
Sources: University of Virginia, Gallup Inc., Public Opinion Quarterly, U.S. News and World Report, CIO Magazine, New York Times, Edelman, Wikipedia.
Elana Varon is a freelance writer based in the Boston area. Follow her on Twitter at @elanavaron.