What most of us think is happening in political campaigns — the fundraising, the backroom dealing, the advertising, the speechmaking — is only part of the story, and an increasingly lesser one at that.
That was the message brought by political journalist Sasha Issenberg during an address at the Clinton School of Public Service this week.
After the 2008 presidential campaign, the author of the book “The Victory Lab” realized that modern campaigns are becoming more and more dependent on what he called “a generation of geeks who were doing really interesting things.”
What things? Basically, campaigns are using data mining techniques to target voters just like corporations are using those techniques to target shoppers.
How have things changed?
Campaigns have long had access to public information such as when we voted, though not for whom. Using census data and other sources, they also have known other information such as our age, race, address, and approximate income. They could guess that a man in his 50s making $100,000 a year and living in a certain part of town might be a Republican, but they didn’t know that for certain.
In recent years, corporations began gleaning enormous amounts of information about us through the things we buy, the magazines to which we subscribe, the warranty cards we complete, the store credit cards we carry, our online activities, etc., etc., etc. Acxiom, based in Little Rock, has been a major player.
Political candidates are salesmen and they are taking advantage of this new technology. They poll looking for certain behaviors, such as ownership of a Volvo car, and then combine that with other characteristics and habits. With all that information, they can pretty much figure out how you are going to vote before you even know who the candidates are.
For some reason, Volvo owners tend to vote for Democrats, by the way.
Campaigns also know that there really aren’t that many Americans who are undecided year in and year out. So instead of trying to persuade us that their vision is right for the country, they are focusing their efforts on finding people who already agree with them and getting them to the polls.
So remember the well-to-do 50-year-old a few paragraphs ago who may or may not be a Republican? Just like corporations, now the campaigns know he also owns a new Ford pickup truck, has a hunting license, attends a Southern Baptist church, and donates regularly to Focus on the Family. That’s either a Republican or someone who leans that way. If he regularly goes to the polls, he’s going to get a reminder from the party to vote and a request for money. If he has skipped the last four elections, Republicans are going to lavish him with attention because he’s a brand new vote waiting to be theirs.
Democrats, meanwhile, aren’t going to waste their resources trying to change his mind, because he probably won’t. Instead, they will leave him alone and hope he keeps neglecting to vote.
It’s a little scary to think that our political leaders know far more about us than we know about them, isn’t it? It also doesn’t promote healthy political discourse when campaigns divide the population in half and focus only on their supporters.
But Issenberg pointed out that good has come from this: a return to personal, one-on-one campaigning.
For decades, political candidates didn’t understand us and frankly didn’t know how to win elections, so they did all they knew to do, which was carpet-bomb us over the airwaves with advertising. They still do that, of course, but now they are able to target their messages. They know, for example, that one of the best ways to get voters to the polls is through human contact such as a volunteer knocking on the door. You can only do that if you know where your potential supporters’ doors are.
So campaigning has gotten personal. Very personal.
Does the good outweigh the bad? That’s not a question the data can answer.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org