WASHINGTON — With control of Congress on the line in next month’s do-or-die election, pollsters and politicians are poring over information on your personal habits and pet peeves to try to win.
Each side is now pinpointing its most “desirable” voters using demographic, attitudinal and consumer data. The process is called “micro-targeting” and involves feeding defined voter groups specially tailored messages, and then dragging or driving them, if need be, to their polling places on Nov. 7, Election Day.
In this new game of GOTV, or get out the vote, there’s no such thing as TMI — too much information.
“The more you know about anyone, the better you can target them,” said Democratic strategist Jano Cabrera.
Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican party, explained how micro-targeting works: “We have two sets of IDs (voter identifications). We have the Republican National Committee ID that is done on the national level, and then each state has the ability to add what we call ‘affiliation codes.' Each state will take different things they can get information on and add them to its micro-targeting universe.”
Seeking the snowmobile vote
Turnout in midterms is always lower than in presidential elections. In 2002, for instance, 33 million Democratic votes were cast nationwide in House races, a one-third falloff from the Democratic vote in the 2000 presidential election, while there were 37 million Republican votes, a 26 percent decline from 2000.
So in midterms such as the Nov. 7 election, each party must work harder to motivate its voters.
In their effort to defeat Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm in Michigan’s gubernatorial contest this year, Republicans are concentrating on voters who own snowmobiles.
“We have the largest population of snowmobilers in the country. We were able to get licenses, etc., and identify 400,000 registered snowmobilers, and we added that to their voter file,” Anuzis said.2006 key races
Last year, Granholm vetoed a bill that would have allowed development of a seven-mile stretch necessary to complete a 2,000-mile snowmobile trail.
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Just as the Michigan GOP did with snowmobile enthusiasts, “you could do the same thing based on whether they signed certain petitions or are alumni of a certain university,” Anuzis said.
Michigan State University alumni, he said, are more likely to vote Republican than University of Michigan graduates and that fact — added to many other pieces of data — can help focus GOP efforts and avoid wasted effort.
“Nothing in itself is a pure determining factor, other than party ID,” said Anuzis.
Democrats acknowledge that Republican tacticians such as Alex Gage of Targetpoint Consulting have put the GOP ahead in this cutting-edge practice, but Democrats are trying to catch up.
The beginning of the search for voters is the voter file: a record of who has cast ballots in the last few elections in each county or state.
Traditionally, a midterm Democratic campaign, for example, “would have looked at voting precincts where the 2004 vote for (presidential candidate) John Kerry was high and yet the Democratic vote in 2002 was low. They’d be thinking, ‘How do we drive up turnout in those specific precincts?’” said Michael Podhorzer, deputy director of the political department at the AFL-CIO.
Change in strategy for Democrats
But this year, Podhorzer said, Democrats will be looking at the entire voter file of people who voted in 2004, but not in 2002, and then try to figure out, regardless of whether those voters live in heavily Democratic precincts, which of them were Kerry voters and how to get them to the polls.
Using the list of self-identified Democratic voters or registered Democrats who have voted in recent elections, the party or an outside group will conduct a large survey of perhaps 3,000 voters, asking them a series of questions, either on issues, such as gasoline prices, or on values, such as privacy or the importance of religious faith.
Values-based micro-targeting, as the GOP did in 2004, would present voters with agree-or-disagree propositions such as, “I feel more comfortable with political leaders who have a strong faith in God.”
The survey might also probe for “anger points” — what drives voters crazy: “How angry are you that Democrats are trying to repeal tax cuts?”
Using consumer data and Census data on income, education levels and other factors, the party will then group the poll respondents into “clusters.”
Seeking 'traditional marriage Democrats'
A cluster called “traditional marriage Democrats,” for instance, would include Democratic voters who could be swayed with traditional marriage messages.
“That’s exactly what happened in West Virginia,” said Cabrera, where Republican micro-targeting on the marriage issue helped President Bush defeat Kerry in 2004.
“They knew exactly where to put that billboard based on micro-targeting,” surmised Cabrera.
Once the cluster of voters is grouped together by attitudes, then researchers can find out what else such people have in common and can design a targeted message to reach them and people akin to them in lifestyle and ideology.
So in theory, at least, Democratic Senate candidate Bob Casey’s campaign in Pennsylvania can target a libertarian, Wal Mart-shopping young mother with two kids ages 8 and 10 in public school, with a custom-tailored message on public education, rather than wasting its time trying to appeal to her on the issue of job losses due to Chinese imports.
“There are very few campaigns that actually realize that level of advanced sophistication,” said Podhorzer.
“We’ve moved from precinct-level data, which will show you a precinct and it shows up as either ‘red’ (Republican) or ‘blue’ (Democratic), to Census-level data, where you can actually see veins of ‘red’ or ‘blue’ running through these precincts,” Cabrera said.
“You know exactly which neighborhoods to skip, which doors you really have to knock on; we can go in the Republican neighborhoods now — places we'd have skipped before because they were predominantly ‘red’ — and just turn out a section of that precinct because we know that’s where the Democrats are,” he said.
The final blitzkrieg
By October, Podhorzer said, the campaign should be trying to communicate with targeted voters through television, mail, robo-calls (frequently with recorded voices of famous people such as Bill Clinton) — “everything they can to break through the din.”
The GOTV blitzkrieg intensifies the Saturday before the election, with volunteers walking through neighborhoods with lists of addresses of targeted supporters, dropping literature and reminding people where their polling place is.
“We literally try to come up with a likely propensity for someone to vote Republican,” said Anuzis. “You personally might have a 62 percent propensity to vote Republican, while your next-door neighbor may be 72 percent, and the guy living across the street might have a 42 percent propensity. And yet you all live on the same block. So now we have a targeted list and we would more likely go to the 72 percent first, the 62 percent person second, and the 42 percent person third.”
And the side that plays this GOTV game more effectively will likely hold the majority in the new Congress.
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