Political parties "micro-targeting" to get voters to polls

A Los Angeles resident inserts his ballot to vote in the November 2006 midterm elections. California was among the many states where voters approved bond measures.

TEXT OF STORY

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: Candidates this year are spending a lot of money, unprecedented amounts of money to get voters to the polls. But not just any voters. Political parties are using sophisticated databases to find only those people most likely to vote their way. Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports on the growing practice of micro-targeting voters.


JIM DIMSDALE: Like so many political tools, commercial marketing created this one. A decade ago, Ben Yuhas worked for credit card companies finding likely customers more cost effectively.

BEN YUHAS: If we send out the same amount of mail and get more people to respond, we acquire people for less money.

Using census profiles and credit histories, Yuhas aimed advertising directly at the people he figured would like certain types of credit cards. If they were travelers, they would want miles rewards. Savers would want cash back cards. The targeting worked and by 2004, Yuhas was creating a national database of likely Democratic voters for a group of political consultants. The database starts with party registration.

YUHAS: It then adds census data, it adds commercial data, demographics and you end up with several hundred variables to describe individuals.

Who are receptive to Democratic ideas. Technology has made the data crunching cheap for any candidate. Denver political consultant Rick Ridder describes a recent voter found by micro-targeting.

RICK RIDDER: A woman voter, between the ages of 35 and 45, had a Hispanic surname. We could determine that her income was approximately $45,000 a year.

And even if that person is in a traditionally GOP neighborhood, the potential voter will probably get a phone call from this guy.

BARACK OBAMA: Hi, this is Barack Obama calling on behalf of the Ohio Democratic Party...

But some political scientists say micro-targeting can go too far and turn off the broader constituency. Terry Madonna runs the Franklin and Marshall Poll in Pennsylvania.

TERRY MADONNA: You run the risk that if you drill down too far and become too opportunistic, let me use that word, that may be helpful to a certain group but not helpful to a broader message you can get yourself into difficulty.

Coming soon, Madonna sees a likely marriage of micro-targeting with mobile technology. That will mean candidates can micro-target even more right down to your cell phone.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

About the author

As head of Marketplace’s Washington, D.C. bureau, John Dimsdale provides insightful commentary on the intersection of government and money for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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