Everyone is a Special Interest
In their hunt for voters, microtargeters study how you live and what you like
But the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign paid TargetPoint $3.25 million to produce microtargeting models for 18 battleground states. That allowed Bush to go after Republican-leaning voters in heavily Democratic areas that had been ignored under the old campaign model, which targeted only precincts that were at least 65 percent Republican. Using computers to identify clusters of lifestyle traits common to various pro-Bush constituencies, TargetPoint generated lists of voters with the same "political DNA" but who were not strong Bush backers. "Party affiliation became secondary to lifestyle" in deciding which voters to chase, says Matthew Dowd, the Bush campaign's chief strategist. "It was a fundamental shift." After the election, the RNC hired one of TargetPoint's founders to work full time from inside the party.
Glitches. Democrats also used microtargeting in 2004, leading to an emphasis on support for embryonic stem cell research to appeal to traditionally Republican voters. But the Democratic National Committee's voter file was plagued by glitches, making it difficult to get even basic information on voters, such as who the registered independents were. "The GOP spent three years before the election working their database and spending millions testing it," says a Democratic strategist who worked on John Kerry's presidential campaign. "We got to the summer before the election, and there were basic problems with the voter file."
This year, the DNC says its voter file, called Demzilla, is finally up to date and user-friendly. But the DNC is spearheading microtargeting efforts in only about half a dozen races, leaving the lion's share of the effort to a patchwork of consultants and interest groups. Republicans, meanwhile, relying almost exclusively on TargetPoint, have a centralized operation whose models have been refined through the 2002 and 2004 cycles. "The more cycles you go through, the more you learn what went right and wrong, the more robust your models become," says Maren Hesla, the women's vote director at EMILY's List. "The Republicans had a couple of cycles to work that process. We'll be in better shape heading into 2008."
In the meantime, former Clinton administration official Harold Ickes recently launched a private voter file for use by liberal groups, irking the DNC. But Ickes also says his operation will need time to develop the capacity to produce microtargeting models and to collect the volume of information that more sophisticated models require. He thinks the investment, reportedly $10 million, is crucial if the Democrats hope to win the White House again. "In a period when the presidency is decided by a handful of votes in a handful of states," Ickes says, "we need to be able to say, 'OK, we can't win a certain constituency, but we can find an additional 5 percent support in that group.'" Last month, MoveOn.org and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent out fundraising pitches that cited matching the Republican microtargeting effort as an imperative for winning this fall.
But microtargeting might be a more helpful tool for the GOP, because its supporters are diffuse, while Democrats are concentrated in cities, making them easy to reach with TV advertising. With President Bush and the Iraq war riding low in the polls, however, the GOP will also have to spend more time targeting voters whose support it took for granted in 2004. "It's the same customers as the last election," says Gage, who estimates that the GOP will pay around $3 million for his services in this election cycle. "But it will be harder to get them to the point of purchase this year."