Politics & Government

Big brother: Politicians using public info to find their targets

Volunteers target voters prior to the 2008 election.
Volunteers target voters prior to the 2008 election. Kyndell Harkness/Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT

WASHINGTON — Remember when credit card applications flooded your mail? You see fewer of them now because credit card companies pre-screen candidates and pester only those who are likely to use a card.

Micro-targeting, the tactic's called, and its ability to spot likely prospects also makes it the hottest thing in politics these days, from election campaigns to lobbying.

While micro-targeting and traditional polling often go together, micro-targeting done well is more accurate and powerful.

Here's why: Polling estimates how many in a group share a view. Micro-targeting predicts how individuals will behave. Micro-targeting doesn't rely on their answers to questions, as polling does. Rather, it analyzes hundreds of details about individuals' lives to predict their political behavior.

Married couples who use different last names, for example, are more likely to be Democrats. So are Volvo drivers. Active duty military personnel are stauncher Republicans than veterans. So are long-distance versus short-distance commuters.

All the findings can be sliced and diced, and the correlations improved with each election, producing precise and powerful results.

"If you want to do a mailing to undecided senior Hispanic women, we can tell you who the most persuadable ones are," said Ken Strasma, who was the chief micro-targeter for President Barack Obama's campaign.

The ultimate goal is to correlate scads of personal details to predict five things: which voters support a candidate, which are undecided, which care about particular issues, which will respond to persuasion and which will vote.

Some details about individuals come from public sources. Local election boards, for example, record whether individuals voted in off-year elections. That's important to predicting how likely they are to turn out. They also report participation in primaries, which, in states that don't report party identification, can reveal it.

Estimates of individual income, home value, commuting distance, education and family size come from the census and tax assessments. The motor vehicle bureau provides date of birth, vehicles owned, height and weight, and, in many states, race.

All the information is typically provided via computerized lists that are sorted or can be sorted by individual.

Commercial list vendors sell micro-targeters other important information, such as gun registration, church denomination, where children go to school, military service, magazine subscriptions and organization memberships.

After mathematically weighing these and scores of other factors, "We have an amazingly robust sense of who each voter is," said Alex Lundry, director of research for TargetPoint Consulting of Alexandria, Va.

"I don't care if it's politically smart; it's creepy," said Alexandra Carter, 19, a student at New York University.

D. Sunshine Hillygus, an associate professor of government at Harvard who's studied micro-targeting, worries that someday it may work too well, enabling politicians to tell persuadable voters, in quasi-private targeted messages, what they want to hear. That'd produce leaders without a shared mandate and obligated in ways to which most voters aren't privy.

"Efficiency doesn't necessarily mean better democracy," Hillygus said.

Nevertheless, by 2010, micro-targeting will determine whose doors get knocked on, who gets mail and who gets ignored in many congressional and state races, political researchers predict. It's already helping interest groups find new members, donors and allies.

"We're light years ahead of even the recent past when it comes to knowing who to contact to affect a political outcome," said Todd Rogers, the executive director of the Boston-based Analyst Institute, which specializes in voter contact.

Micro-targeting is easier, faster and cheaper now, just like the computer power on which it depends. More analysts are acquiring the creative skills it requires, mainly in database analysis and computer modeling, and like-minded groups are sharing databases and findings.

Micro-targeting got a big lift from the Obama campaign, which, with allies such as the AFL-CIO, wrote the book on micro-targeting's use in elections — at least the current edition.

Strasma, Obama's micro-targeter, estimates that Democrats are now two years ahead on the political technology front, which Republicans had dominated since the 1980s.

"The winner always gets to say he's two years ahead," responded Lundry, who's Strasma's GOP counterpart.

The next frontier is selling winning messages to individuals that micro-targeting has identified as persuadable. Peer-to-peer social networks will help, along with direct mail and Internet ads. So will cable television, which is just beginning to target individual households with its ads.

How fast the field is advancing is clear from this comparison: The Bush campaign turned to Lundry's firm for micro-targeting just once, in July 2004, and relied on those findings through last November's election. The Obama campaign used micro-targeting by Strasma's Washington-based firm, Strategic Telemetry, in each primary and battleground state and nationally, repeatedly, a total of 293 times.

By November, they'd created a new, improved model of campaigning based on accurate lists of persuadable individuals updated overnight with input from field workers.

Instead of concentrating efforts in strongly supportive blue precincts, as traditional campaigns did, Obama's team sought and found supportive and persuadable voters and registered new ones in even the reddest of precincts.

The new efficiency helped produce wins in Republican strongholds, such as North Carolina, Virginia and Indiana. It also blew away many veteran volunteers.

"Everyone I was assigned to was willing to talk," recalled Kathie Stevens of Milton, Mass., who volunteered for Obama for two weeks in New Hampshire. "Only three people definitively said 'Go away.' "

The research was so good that Stevens and other canvassers usually were told which spouse to talk to in ticket-splitting households.

The intelligence "was so good it was almost scary," she said.

Politically active non-profits such as the Sierra Club also use micro-targeting extensively. It's a great help finding sympathetic unregistered voters, for example, and new members and donors. It also can enhance lobbying power as if by steroids, Cathy Duvall, the Sierra Club's political director, discovered.

In a 2007 debate over fuel-efficiency standards, she recalled, the Sierra Club found itself with too few members to have much clout in one Indiana lawmaker's district. So she used the Sierra Club's membership profile to micro-target like-minded constituents in the lawmaker's district who weren't club members. When asked to call or write the lawmaker, 43 percent of them said yes, just 2 percentage points less than Sierra Club members.

Duvall's got two other micro-targeting ideas brewing. One is to recruit for future campaigns people who live within a few miles of coal-fired power plants or Superfund sites — especially those who might attribute their falling home values to that proximity. Another idea is to seek support on Everglades issues from Florida motorists who've bought environmental license plates.

With help from micro-targeting, Duvall said, "We can now organize support effectively in almost any district."


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