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Analytics Magazine

Viewpoint: Big Brother’s Campaign

Winter 2008

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Political parties use us for ‘microtargeting’ practice. How does that impact governance?

The 2008 elections are over, but the bitter battles to win the White House, Senate and House seats and other hotly contested political races around the country wounded even the victors, and analysis-based attacks may have done the most damage. Behind all the campaign hype and hoopla is an extremely successful and perhaps disturbing analytical success story: microtargeting. Political campaigns for both parties and at all levels use highly precise polling, marketing data and computerized data analysis to identify small groups of people who will respond to carefully crafted messages aimed at their particular interests.

These methods extend and expand on the marketing methods of companies such as Amazon.com, which collects interests and preferences of visitors to its Web site to generate recommendations of other items that might be of interest. The speed and low expense of computers, and the growing ease of collection and dissemination of data about preferences, have supported much more widespread applications, including political campaigns.

Recently there have been a number of media and online articles hailing microtargeting as a huge advance in campaign technology and crediting it with a number of notable successes. In fact, despite the claims of major current practitioners and those who have reported on them, this has been going on for a long time. This reporter can recall “persuadables targeting” and “Get Out the Vote (GOTV) targeting” practiced by both parties in 1970: Ronald Reagan’s campaign for re-election as governor of California was particularly good at it, as was John Tunney’s campaign for Senate in California that same year. That’s one reason why Democrat Tunney won by about 600,000 votes, while Republican Reagan won by about 500,000.

As the names imply, “persuadables” targeting consists of identifying uncommitted or weakly committed voters and determining what appeals, policy positions, personal appearances, walk-through canvassing or other actions might win their votes. “GOTV” focuses on likely supporters who might not vote, reminding them to vote, sometimes offering rides to the polls and other appeals to increase turnout among these people.

These methods weren’t new in 1970, either. Political scientist (Cal-Berkeley) and best-selling novelist (“The Ugly American,” “Fail-Safe”) Eugene Burdick outlined the approach in his first novel, “The Ninth Wave,” in 1956, and described it more detail in “The 480? in 1964. The latter title refers to the number of clusters into which the method of that time divided the U. S. electorate.

Essentially, the targeter simply identifies small groups of people, based on party affiliation, religion, race, income level, education, other affiliations and past patterns of voting and buying behavior, and then works out how to combine appeals to a number of these groups to assemble a winning combination. A candidate might send letters to small business owners warning them that the other candidate will raise their taxes, while writing to older people to claim that the other candidate will cut their benefits. The precision and tone – and honesty and decency – of these appeals are pretty much up to those who design them.

An example of the modern version was the 2005 gubernatorial race in Virginia, where “[a]rmed with sophisticated new polling techniques refined by both national parties in the 2004 presidential election, Republican Jerry W. Kilgore and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine [compiled] detailed profiles based on how old voters are, what houses they live in, what newspapers they read, what restaurants they eat at and how much money they make,” Michael D. Shear reported in the Aug. 28, 2005, Washington Post. “The goal: direct mail letters and voter drives designed not for the masses, but instead for tiny, well-defined slices of the state’s voting population.”

Shear added, “Marketers, law enforcement agencies, security officials, background screeners and now politicians are tapping into the same commercially available databases with the goal of rating people with laser-like accuracy.”

This reporter is also aware of messages quietly but widely disseminated to voters in the more conservative parts of Virginia by the George Allen gubernatorial campaign in 1993, strongly implying that his opponent, Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, was a lesbian. Allen won, overcoming a large early deficit in the polls.

This example illustrates the cause for concern, also thoroughly discussed in Burdick’s two novels. The carefully targeted appeals may not be confined to finding voters’ strongest policy interests and crafting appeals to address those interests. Finding particular groups’ hates and fears, and playing on them, can also be part of the package. One of Burdick’s characters in “The 480? asks the targeter, “What if old Joe McCarthy came along using your techniques?” Worse yet, as central characters in “The Ninth Wave” eventually figure out, winning by playing on hate and fear can lead to more of the same. Over time, this can corrupt the politicians and analysts who use these tactics and diminish people’s trust in government, undermining the winners’ ability to govern.

At least one well-known commentator is now advancing the same argument. In her new book, Peggy Noonan, who came to prominence as President Reagan’s chief speechwriter, calls for a wholesale retreat from opponent-bashing rhetoric, and in particular from the narrowly aimed negative messages that diminish overall confidence in all political leaders. Those who understand the scope and prevalence of these messages, and how they are generated, could do the country a service by joining in pointing out their harmful potential. As people become more aware of what is being done to them, narrowly focused negative tactics will lose their effectiveness. That’s the way to bring about a return to more positive, broad-based campaigning and, in turn, more trusted – and trustworthy – government.

Doug Samuelson (samuelsondoug@yahoo.com) is a principal decision scientist at Serco, a general professional services firm headquartered in Reston, Va., and president of InfoLogix, Inc., a consulting company in Annandale, Va. He worked as a paid campaign staffer in a U. S. Senate campaign in Nevada in 1970, as a county coordinator in a gubernatorial campaign, as a targeting analyst for a local campaign in California in 1974 and as a Federal Civil Service policy analyst from 1975 to 1982.

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