Microtargeting – the Latest Tool for Reading the Voters’ Minds

Among the greatest challenges any campaign faces is deciding how to invest its limited resources – particularly candidate time and campaign funds.Targeting in campaigns is as old as politics. The goal is to determine who supports, who won’t support and who can be persuaded to support the candidate so resources aren’t wasted persuading the persuaded or attempting to persuade the non-persuadables. Campaign resources are most effective when concentrated on the unpersuaded who can be persuaded.

In today’s world, you also want to know if they are early voters, absentee voters or Election Day voters so you know when to turn them out.

Historically, the basic predictor of voting behavior was primary election participation. If a voter participated in four or five recent GOP primaries, they were labeled Republican leaning voters. If they voted in the same number of Democratic primaries, they were considered Democrat leaners. If they voted in a couple of GOP and a couple of Democratic primary – or only voted in general elections - they were considered swing voters.

How many primaries they participated in determined whether they were hard or soft partisans.

Voter history is a reasonably good predictor of future behavior, but it isn’t perfect. As campaigns became more sophisticated, candidates began combining demographic information with voting history to develop more precise predictors of voter behavior.

The problem with these voting indicators is it gave campaigns little indication of which voters were affected by different campaign messages. Soon, campaigns started incorporating their polling data into the voter analysis, assuming that if 80% of a district’s white, college-educated, executive/managerial males were opposed to increased taxes, the campaign should target anti-tax messages to that group of voters.

Soon, however, campaigns began asking what was different about that 20% of white, college-educated male population that weren’t anti-tax. They wanted to know what messages could motivate anomalous groups to vote for their candidate.

To answer that question, political consultants developed a new tool called microtargeting. Borrowed from current business marketing analytics, microtargeting is an diagnostic tool to help campaigns find the messages that best move the herd. Equally important, microtargeting helps identify subgroups of voters that don’t run with the herd and determine what motivates them, too.

Presidential and statewide campaigns have been using microtargeting for several election cycles. George W. Bush used it very effectively against John Kerry in 2004. By 2008, the Dems caught up and surpassed the GOP in their microtargeting sophistication.

For instance, the Obama campaign blended microtargeting with highly effective email, text messaging, viral marketing and social networking tactics to generate its massive advantage in capturing and turning out young voters.

Microtargeting helps campaigns answer the most important strategic questions they face. Who should we be talking to? Why should we be talking to them? What should we say to them? What media is most effective in reaching them? When should we talk to them (are they early voters, Election Day voters, absentee voters, etc.)?

In addition, microtargeting can pinpoint voters who are already with you or will never vote for you, so you don’t waste resources talking to the “saved” and “the eternally damned.”

Microtargeting incorporates a wide range of data, such as the kind of car you drive, where you shop, magazines you read, what you buy, racial, religious, ethnic, economic data – all information campaigns can purchase from credit card companies. Basically, microtargeting taps into the data which credit card companies and retailers like Kroger and Publix with shopper cards use to learn more about you than your mother knows.

Every time you swipe that credit or shopper card, some computer somewhere records all your purchases and categorizes you based on what you buy. They take your data and lump it with other people who bought the same items you purchased and make certain assumptions about you and your fellow subgroup members.

Campaigns are now doing the same thing. A campaign needs an ability to digitally store, archive, analyze and quickly retrieve massive amounts of data.

Then, you need savvy data crunching and sharp-eyed analytic capability working together to find the subgroups that most campaigns don’t understand or know about.

But with the right approach, microtargeting can be effective in finding groups of voters that are outside the norm and who have a hot button that motivates them to support your campaign and vote. These analytic tools are particularly helpful when the election is expected to be close or when you’re running in a district where the partisan trends are normally against you.

It’s not something a small budget campaign typically can afford, though software developers are beginning to produce programs that can handle many of microtargeting’s analytic chores. For example, Caliper Corp. developed a product originally designed to help state and local legislatures with redistricting efforts.

Realizing the campaign applications for this technology, the company released Maptitude for Precinct and Election Management™, and later released Political Maptitude™. Users can load the programs and add their voter files, consumer data or any figures they wanted to see displayed as a multi-faceted map. Versions of Political Maptitude™ even allow users to calculate how long it takes to walk a precinct and the hot issues in each neighborhood.

The ultimate goal of microtargeting is to let candidates understand the key issues that are important in each household within the district. Using widely available data, they can almost read the voters’ minds. Then, using that information to craft campaign messages precisely for individual households, they can figuratively place the candidate at every kitchen table in the district.

With newly emerging software packages and more powerful PCs, microtargeting will begin to show up in local elections during the 2010 and 2012 cycles. If your campaign isn’t prepared to explore this option, your candidate may be at a significant disadvantage to campaigns that do.

Microtargeting is not a silver bullet that guarantees success. It is simply a more sophisticated tool to do what campaigns have always done.

Yet, when it becomes more widely available, microtargeting local races will become a valuable weapon for campaign targeting and messaging.

Rusty Paul is former Georgia GOP Chairman, state senator and long-time campaign consultant for state and local campaigns.  He did his masters work in Campaigns & Elections at Georgia State University.  iSquared Communications is a political consultant helping Republican candidates in state and local races. Email him at www.RustyPaul@isquaredcommunications.com

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