Everyone is a Special Interest
In their hunt for voters, microtargeters study how you live and what you like
Facing an otherwise bleak political landscape, the Republican Party believes Michigan presents a rare opportunity to pick up both a U.S. Senate and a governor's seat this November, and it knows just the kind of voters who can make it happen: male snowmobilers who live in the state's rugged Upper Peninsula. "We appeal to them on the need for more [snowmobile] trails," says state GOP Chair Saul Anuzis, who blames the "environmental extremism" of Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow for holding up construction of such trails. Of course, that message won't play in Detroit. So the GOP is crafting a separate appeal just for antiabortion union members. And it may target wealthy retirees along Lake Michigan in a different way, by vowing more tax cuts.
In fact, Michigan's Republican Party has sorted the state's 7 million voters into no fewer than 42 different categories, based on hundreds of pieces of data about each one. That includes voting behavior, age, income, magazine subscriptions, favorite vacation spots, even the length of a voter's daily commute and whether he or she has a telephone with caller ID. On the surface, much of the information is politically useless. But by using closely guarded algorithms and advanced computer modeling, the Michigan GOP can predict how likely voters in each category are to support Senate candidate Mike Bouchard and gubernatorial hopeful Dick DeVos-and which messages stand the best shot at winning them over by Election Day. Then the party delivers those customized messages through mailings and phone calls and by sending volunteers door to door.
Slicing and dicing. It's the most sophisticated deployment of such technology, called microtargeting, in state party history. "We've built our entire victory model on microtargeting," says Anuzis. The Democrats, meanwhile, are running a similar operation, courtesy of EMILY's List. The pro-abortion-rights group is dividing Michigan's undecided voters into a dozen different segments based on church attendance and other lifestyle traits.
The Republican and Democratic microtargeting efforts in Michigan are being replicated in dozens of competitive races across the country, in many instances for the first time on a nonpresidential level. The main Republican microtargeting firm, TargetPoint Consulting Inc., worked on just three Senate races in 2004, when it was focused on President Bush's re-election. This year, it is active in more than two dozen House and Senate contests, including in Rhode Island, where TargetPoint's work was largely credited with Sen. Lincoln Chafee's hard-won primary victory last week. Unlike any congressional election to date, the results of this fall's midterms could be determined by which party can out-microtarget the other.
Corporations have merged consumer and demographic data for decades to use in product marketing, but the software that can integrate such information with voter files and polling became cheap enough for campaigns only in the past few election cycles. TargetPoint founder Alex Gage, a veteran campaign pollster, first approached the Republican National Committee with his microtargeting ideas after 2000, when the party was studying ways to improve its ground game after having lost the popular vote for president. "The [RNC] was saying, we need to know more about our customers-which ones are cultural conservatives, economic conservatives, and all the different gradations," Gage recalls. "Then we need to send them messaging based on what it is they want to buy." As recently as 2002, though, Gage was still working to persuade skeptical Republican candidates to be guinea pigs for his microtargeting experiments. "When you confront anybody with true innovation," he says, "there's a hesitancy to embrace it."