You're Being Microtargeted
October 30, 2006
Dan Weissmann is a freelance writer in Chicago. Read more of his articles at http://www.danweissmann.com.
I may find it a little creepy that Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman know what magazines I subscribe to, what kind of car I drive and how many TVs I own, but does that make it bad for democracy? I don't think so.
The fact that I am a switch-hitter on the Mac-vs.-PC question isn't something I've chosen to share with Howard Dean, but if he happens to know—and chances are decent that someone working for him does—it may ultimately be one of the better things that's happened to our small-d democratic process for quite some time.
Both major parties have been spending millions of dollars in the last few years on efforts to “microtarget” voters and potential voters, sifting through every little thing they can know about me and you, trying to figure out how they might be able to persuade us to vote their way. Republicans have a head start and some serious advantages in this game, but Democrats are playing with gusto.
The gold standard in partisan microtargeting is the Republican National Committee's database, Voter Vault. It starts by compiling state voter files, which campaigns have always used to identify loyal partisans and folks who need an extra nudge to get to the polls. Then a Web-based interface allows party workers and volunteers to add the information they get when they knock on doors and make phone calls: Mr. X hates gun control; Mrs. Y supports the war in Iraq. The Web-based input also allows volunteers to let the Party know who else belongs to their churches, synagogues and mosques—information that can come in handy when candidates are looking for citizens receptive to anti-abortion mailings.
Next comes data purchased from commercial marketing companies—the magazines, the cars, the TVs and the computers, even the kind of beer we drink. Finally each voter's profile gets topped off with other publicly available information like census data: The race and income mix of your neighborhood, how many people own their homes and how big the homes are, how far you and your neighbors commute to work. If you’ve got a hunting license you’re probably against gun control, and since that license is public record, it’s collected as well. Even if you’ve never been to the polls, Voter Vault can help determine how you might cast a ballot.
While the RNC provides Voter Vault free of charge to candidates and state and local party organizations, Democrats have been more fractured. The Democratic National Committee has a database, but it's a work-in-progress, and many candidates end up relying on the services of consultants like Ken Strasma, president of the Washington, D.C.-based firm Strategic Telemetry, who explains how politicians target voters who haven't registered a party affiliation or voted in primaries.
“We're able to take several hundred different indicators from the census and commercial marketing data, look at people who do have primary voting history and see what they look like demographically,” he says. “Not just the wealthier-people-vote-Republican generalities, but what does a woman who commutes more than 50 minutes a day and has a postgraduate degree—what does her vote look like? We're able to compile a model and apply it to people who don't vote in primaries and get an accurate picture of their likely partisanship. None of this is a hundred percent. You're not able to say this person is a Democrat or a Republican. But even if you're not able to say people who drive four-door foreign cars are Republicans, period, end of paragraph, you can come up with scores that say: these people with this combination of 350 census indicators are 60 percent likely to be Democrats. You can make generalizations about groups of voters that are accurate enough to deliver campaign messages.”
There's an argument to be made that this kind of practice is bad for democracy: If campaigns take political pitches out of the public square and send targeted messages to individual voters instead, what's to stop them from suckering us? Won't they just tell each of us what we want to hear, making themselves a “big-tent” party simply by not letting us know that we're standing in the same tent as our political enemies?
And there are real-world examples of candidates attempting to use microtargeting techniques to divide-and-conquer—making individual pitches to one population that they'd like to keep other potential voters from knowing about. For instance, the Bush 2004 campaign, in its efforts to cultivate Latino voters, sent DVDs to Hispanic-surname voters in which Bush alluded to how Chicanos living in Texas and California only became "Latinos" after the U.S. annexed those territories from Mexico. "After that, many of them were treated as foreigners in their own land," said Bush, a sentiment that would not endear him to the Minutemen. Meanwhile, the GOP sent mailings this summer in the Illinois 6th Congressional District, site of one of the most hotly-contested races in the country this year, hammering on how Democrat Tammy Duckworth is soft on "illegal aliens."
What stops this kind of tactic from working as planned is, well, the mainstream media. The Republican mailings that accused Duckworth of supporting “immigration policies that would reward illegal aliens for sneaking across our borders” wound up in the hands of a local immigrants-rights group, which then sent them directly to the Chicago Sun-Times , gaining a platform to pressure the Republican candidate in that district, Peter Roskam, to renounce the mailings. When we hit the point where the dire prophesies about the death of newspapers start to come true, then we should start to worry about this kind of tactic.
Elsewhere in the Illinois 6th, Debra Olson is showing why microtargeting is good for our democracy: It ups the chances that we'll actually hear about issues. As a Republican township committeeman in the district, she uses information she's gleaned from her neighbors’ Voter Vault profiles to break through their disgust with negative campaign advertisements on both sides. That information “opens up the conversation,” Olson says, allowing her to bring up issues she knows her constituents care about. Olson notes that she can get away with that approach only because she already has relationships with her constituents. “These are your neighbors,” she says. “You've talked with them about their kids. I wouldn't approach someone I didn't know and say, 'I saw on Voter Vault.' That would turn them off completely.” In other words, Voter Vault, with its Big Brother connotations, is only acceptable—and therefore, only useful, as an adjunct to good old neighbor-to-neighbor retail politics, which is about as wholesome as our system gets. And even with her neighbors, Olson tends to be delicate in how she uses the information Voter Vault gives her. “You try to work it into the conversation; you don’t just try to blow someone away with it,” she says. “You're asking questions about issues people care about rather than saying, ‘I’ve been checking you out.’”
Because even if it's good for our democracy that my committeeman knows I just got a new iPod and what's on it, we'll both be more comfortable if we can pretend that she doesn't.