Microtargeting in Applebee’s America

Howard Dean introduced the digital peer-to-peer campaign in 04, and George W. Bush introduced microtargeting to politics. Four years later, technology and information have taken exponential leaps gain taking the 08 campaigns to new levels. It raises a lot of questions from how useful the tool is to privacy and security concerns.

However, the groundbreaking work on microtargeting was done, primarily by Republicans, in 2004 by combing demographic, marketing, and consumer data in order to target voters likely to vote for your party.

From the Bush Team’s LifeTargeting Program came ‘funny’ stories like Republicans drink Dr. Pepper, Democrats Sprite or Pepsi. Democrats tend also to favour clear liquors, white wine, and Evian water. On the other hand, Republicans favour brown liquors, red wine, and Fiji water.

Does it work?
One of the few critical voices in our material for this week’s class, James Carville, says it is way too expensive to use microtargeting as a tool, and there are better and cheaper ways to predict voter behaviour. Of course a voter’s choice of soft drink does not predict what vote he or she will cast on Election Day. As said in the opening you have to combine all kinds of data from various sources.



Wired Magazine, July 2008 

Take a look at the results of microtargeting from the Bush campaign in 04; “The LifeTargeting Program was able to predict with 80 to 90 percent certainty whether a person would vote Republican” (Applebee’s America, 2006, p. 37). It is important information for parties fighting for their votes in races that are too close to call like in Ohio. Yes, it is expensive, and that is why campaigns should only use the tool where it makes sense; Bush only used this tool in the 16 most competitive states. 

The Long Tail
Reading Applebee’s America, this chart struck me, like it did in the Republican Party years ago. The importance of independent voters is declining:

 Applebee´s America, 2006, p. 32

According to this chart, it was useless to divide voters into Swing I or II like President Clinton did during his campaign in 1996. Furthermore, only 15 percent of Republican-leaning voters lived in Republican precincts, the rest was rarely influenced by a Republican campaign. And Republican voters did not watch TV like the campaigns used to think. Hence, the strategy had to change.


I visited Catalist’s office in Washington DC earlier this year, and when they were explaining their mission to me, I realized that politics is also part of The Long Tail. It is now possible for campaigns to target voters with the messages and issues that they are concerned about no matter where they live. It is niche politics and it makes a difference.


21st century Civic Engagement

One thing is to identify voters likely to vote for your candidate. The next thing is to persuade the individual voters to cast the vote. “We focused on people we thought were inclined to vote for the president if we touched them in the right way” said Terry Nelson, Bush Campaign’s national political director in Applebee’s America (p. 42). One way is to identify the Influentials in a community. Influentials “make a convincing case that one of every ten Americans tells the other nine what to buy, how to vote, and where to eat” (Applebee’s America, 2006, p. 54). The Bush campaign identified and asked them to reach out to friends and family thereby influencing their vote. It was more or less the same that drove Joe Trippi’s thinking in the Dean campaign by reaching out to MeetUp and its self-organizing groups.


MeetUp and the Bush Campaign are both thrilling examples of Americans being more engaged in their communities again. But I cannot help thinking that there are still groups of Americans who are not participating in the concentric circles of civic engagement. Can we as a democracy still accept that millions of people are not participating one way or the other?


Privacy and Security

I have also been wondering while reading Applebee’s America etc. for this class; how is microtargeting regulated in USA? I am wondering because I have always understood privacy and personal liberty to be core values in the American culture. It is my Danish background influencing me at this point. In Denmark, the laws are very strict in relation to exchanging private or personal information, and I do not think, microtargeting will be possible to the extend that we see here.


Furthermore, I cannot help comparing these voter databases with Google who also know a lot of things about its users’ (online) behaviour. But there is one main difference. I can stop using Google if I do not trust the company or want to spread my information among other sources. But it is really hard to avoid the voter databases and the linking of data unless I don’t use my credit card. I guess so far, all of us are willing to trade our privacy and security for the convenience of Google and microtargeting.







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