A Micro-Targeted Democracy

BullseyeWe’ve seen a lot of talk recently about the GOP’s “Voter Vault” system, a huge database of, apparently, every registered voter in the U.S. It’s been collated with consumer records, public information, and basically any shred of personal data that can be mined, bought, borrowed, rented, or tracked. (The Dems, playing catch-up and perhaps wanting to shed their soft image, christened their response — or, rather, one of their competing responsesDemzilla.)

Gone are the days when party, ethnic, and religious affiliations were all that mattered. Do you drink bourbon or gin, drive a Mercury Sable or a Toyota Prius? Do you live in a condo or an apartment? How big was the recent addition to your house? Do you have call waiting? Did you sign a petition to keep Terry Schiavo alive? Do you send your kids to a parochial school? Do you own a snowmobile? Have a hunting license? What magazines do you subscribe to? Did you send in the warranty card for your new washing machine? Kenmore or Whirlpool? What was your response to the call you received from the DNC last year? Last month? To the door knocker yesterday? It’s all there.

At a certain point, the theory of “micro-targeting” goes, with enough data points and a big enough computer to crunch them, political operatives can assign a likelihood — an actual percentage — that you’ll want to vote for a particular candidate. And they can identify the tailored message — like a bespoke suit, made to your measurements! — that will get you to the polls on election day. So, for example, even though we’re neighbors, you might get calls and visitors extolling the virtues of Candidate X’s record on abortion and gay marriage; I’m getting a barrage of literature about her green conservationist stance. We’d both hear, theoretically, just what what we “wanted” to hear.

We’re wondering: Is micro-targeting is a worrisome (if inevitable) embrace by the parties and K street of one of the shinier arrows in Madison Avenue’s quiver? Or a positive step towards more “personalized” campaigning? Will this encourage — and eventually engage — more voters or simply divide an already (and at least) bifurcated nation? Is there a difference between politics and marketing? Should there be a difference? In short, is this a good development in American democracy — in any democracy — or the back swing of its death knell?

Update, 11/2/06 12:40pm

Paul Voice, a philosophy professor at Bennington College, chimes in that this is closer to death knell:

Treating the political arena as a market, with voters understood as consumers and political platforms as products, debases democracy and the idea of democratic citizenship for a number of reasons. Firstly, the legitimacy of the government rests on the free consent of citizens in a democracy. There is a real question of whether the political marketers are seeking the consent of citizens or simply attempting to manipulate them. Secondly, the more segmented the marketing, the narrower the range of views and ideas voters will be exposed to. This divides the public sphere and assumes that voters’ preferences are set in advance of political discussion. Thirdly, the ideal of democratic citizenship is a concern with the general good and what is right for the political body as a whole – we (ideally) leave our particular interests aside when we enter the political sphere – the parliament and the market are different places. If voters are treated as consumers then the distinction collapses and we act on our narrow personal interests rather than as citizens.

Paul Voice, in an e-mail to Open Source

Philip Howard

Professor of Communication, University of Washington

Author, New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen

Alexander Gage

Founder and President, TargetPoint Consulting

Bruce Gronbeck

Professor of Public Address, University of Iowa

Author, The Repersonalization of Presidential Campaigning in 2004 in American Behavioral Scientist (Reg. required)

Paul Voice

Professor of Philosophy, Bennington College

Author, Morality and Agreement

Extra Credit Reading
Don’t Mention the War, To: Maelstrom, Free Republic, November 4, 2006: “It’s only 12:30 here and I’ve already gotten three phone calls reminding me that it’s the last day of early voting (one from the GOP and two from candidates’ campaigns offering rides), and two in-person visits. There’s not going to be a single registered Republican in the entire United States that is going to make it to Tuesday evening without being contacted at least once or twice. The Voter Vault is a Godsend.”

Thomas B. Edsall, Democrats’ Data Mining Stirs an Interparty Battle, The Washington Post, March 8, 2006: “A group of well-connected Democrats led by a former top aide to Bill Clinton is raising millions of dollars to start a private firm that plans to compile huge amounts of data on Americans to identify Democratic voters and blunt what has been a clear Republican lead in using technology for political advantage.”

Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, GOP Mines Data for Every Tiny Bloc, Los Angeles Times, September 24, 2006: “In Michigan, for example, the GOP contacted snowmobilers by mail, telephone or other personal communication suggesting that Democrats’ environmental views stood in the way of greater opportunities for snowmobiling.”

clintonfan42, 2006 Will Be A Test For GOP GOTV Machine, TPMCafe, June 28, 2006: “Whether or not there is such a GOP GOTV machine may well be discovered after the 2006 elections — which could be the its biggest test yet.”

Dave Weissman, You’re Being Microtargeted, TomPaine, October 30, 2006: “I may find it a little creepy that Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman know what magazines I subscribe to, what kind of car I drive and how many TVs I own, but does that make it bad for democracy? I don’t think so.”

Ron Fournier, Applebee’s America, Simon & Schuster, September 2006.

Hat tip to emmetoconnell for suggesting Applebee’s America.

Related Content

  • When I read “Applebee’s America” I got the impression that the real impact of this sort of tactic is that politicians and professional political operatives were finally meeting us on our terms, rather than stumbling out of the gate, checking polls, moving in one direction, checking polls and so on.

    Countered with the organic political organization happening online, this clearer view of why we vote a particular way may create a more honest politics, rather than “dwell(ing) among the dead issues of the past.”

    Also, how local parties are organized, by precinct, seems to be archaic given the “social connections” politics that is being encouraged. Instead of having a precinct committee officer calling neighbors, the Bush campaign in 2004 had gun owners calling gun owners, hockey players calling hockey players, and web geeks calling web geeks.

  • David

    I’m intrigued by your comment, Emmett. You say this might create a more honest politics. I’m curious if others here agree. Might micro-targeting be both pandering and honest at the same time?

    As for your last paragraph, I think I’d rather live in a society in which gun owners called web geeks and hockey players called security moms.

  • David: “I think I’d rather live in a society in which gun owners called web geeks and hockey players called security moms.” Yeah, me too, but in a campaign, who is going to be more convincing? I think the point is that friends trust friends. Its more effective for people to convince their friends, who they have a lot in common with, than convince strangers. Its a sad comment on where we’ve come, but its true.

    Back to the top of your post, not all marketing is bad. Micro targeting could be used to pander, but used the right way, it could give us a truer sense of the lay of the land.

  • plnelson

    The premise of “microtargeting” is based on them tailoriing a message just for me. The flaw in their plan is obvious: they have to GET the message to me!

    My recycling bin is on the way into my house from my mailbox. Political advertising has NEVER made it past that bin. My email spam filters are set to block political content and they must work very well because even though I have a pretty high-profile presence on the web I never see blantantly political ads in my email. Once in awhile I get ads for products which claim to help me get elected and stay elected longer, but I don’t know who the candidates are. ( 😎 ) And I have software in my browser that accepts cookies and then disappears them, so websites don’t know who I am when I’m surfing from home.

    Frankly, I think that anyone who actually LOOKS AT political ads DESERVES to get microtargeted, good and heard.

  • plnelson

    “good and heard” s.b. “good and hard”. Brendan, why doesn’t this sw have an edit feature like normal forum sw does?

    “Back to the top of your post, not all marketing is bad. Micro targeting could be used to pander, but used the right way, it could give us a truer sense of the lay of the land.”

    I disagree. ALL (political) marketing IS bad. It’s totally unnecessary because politicians are public figures. Everything they have ever done in their current or previous offices is a matter of public record. Their votes, their speeches, even their campaign’s financial contributors, is all public information. If they are running for office for the first time then what they did in their previous position is almost always a matter of public record.

    I take a certain amount of pride in saying that for the last several cars I bought I never ONCE looked at a single shred of advertising for any of them – no brochures, DVD’s, newspaper or magaizine ads, nothing. But I researched the heck out of all of them, via JD Powers, Consumer Reports, various crash and safety statistics, debates and discussions on web forums, data on resale value, and a particularly nasty and tortuous style of prolonged test-drive I do on prospective cars. I’m the same way with politicians.

  • plnelson, you are probably the extreme exception of how people take in political information. That said, I agree that most people open their mail over the recycling bin, they are pretty savvy to marketing messages.

    Which brings up something we haven’t covered that much. A major part of micro targeting is that politicians use existing social networks (such as church groups and gun clubs) to get their message across. They identify opinion leaders (networking types, what have you) and ask them to carry the message. People believe their friends, not ads.

  • plnelson

    “plnelson, you are probably the extreme exception of how people take in political information.”

    That may be true but I’ll stack my knowledge of current events, geopolitics, the economy and budget, science, history, and the Constitution up against anyone’s, anywhere, including most politicians’. It’s possible to be well-informed without being inundated by political ads. I think my key to success is avoiding TV. That way I not only avoid most of the ads, but it leaves me more time to read a good magazine or newspaper.

    The problem with using “existing social networks (such as church groups and gun clubs)” is that it often results in preaching to the converted. That might be useful from a political strategy standpoint since both major parties have seriously disappointed their core supporters in recent years, so their bases need shoring up. But in a nation where party affiliation is low and social networks are disintegrating (e.g., “Bowling Alone”) it doesn’t seem like a good way to expand the base. Sneakier methods of social marketing like planting a talkative stooge in a group to talk up a product (or candidate) as though it was normal conversation are risky because if they were exposed they would backfire bigtime.

  • plnelson: Read Applebee’s America. Yes, as pointed out by Putnam, traditional social networks are fraying, but people are still looking for social networks. The Lions Club, Elks and VFW are dying, but there are other social networks rising up to meet them. Mega-churches are one of them. Meetups after 2004 had the potential, but I think the parties (well, the Democratic Party) didn’t see the need and needlessly let them fall away. People are still looking for those social bonds, you just have to look for them in different places.

    Also, I don’t necessarily think that you won’t find “unconverted” people inside social networks. Up to 40 percent of attendees at mega churches (according to AA) aren’t Republicans, and with turnout at best 60+ percent, you can always find people who aren’t voting.

  • dieing philosopher!

    I don’t know what the scenario in US is, but in India the average Indian will always look for microtargeting—(at least he will for the first time feel his importance in democracy), and I frankly think that average voter in developing country is not politically aware, or at the least he is politically apathetic. if a good candidate is out there wanting to do good (heaven knows what his chances will be), then I think instead of addressing public meetings where everything is chaotic, and impersonal, he (and voters also, trust me) would be glad of little microtargeting!

    afterall, let us trust a little in voter’s intelligence, when the voter will be targeted and will understand what is going on there; he will definitely thrust aside his apathetic slumber and participate in healthy democracy. . .

  • plnelson

    “afterall, let us trust a little in voter’s intelligence”

    I can’t speak for India, but in America that would be a losing strategy . . .

  • I drink milk and drive a mercury tracer with shark teeth in the grill. Anyhow as a wiser man than myself once said: “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” That might be a wisecrack, but I doubt it.

  • Richard Ryan Anderson: my fellow producer Chelsea, who could have a second career as a consumer profiler, says that milk plus Mercury Tracer (with shark teeth grill) = libertarian.

  • dieing philosopher!

    I can’t speak for India, but in America that would be a losing strategy . plnelson

    , I don’t agree to this. afterall, it is the voter who is the pillar of democracy (forgive my little idealism, but it is true nonetheless, isn’t it)?

    while trusting our voters how long will we lose? somewhere the situation will change for better, won’t it? afterall, the situation can’t get worse than what it is right now.

  • plnelson

    “I can’t speak for India, but in America that would be a losing strategy . plnelson

    , I don’t agree to this. afterall, it is the voter who is the pillar of democracy (forgive my little idealism, but it is true nonetheless, isn’t it)?

    while trusting our voters how long will we lose? somewhere the situation will change for better, won’t it? afterall, the situation can’t get worse than what it is right now.”

    Why do you say they can’t get worse than they are now? The political situation in America is bad, but Mexico is worse. The political situation in Mexico is bad but Russia is worse. The political situation in Russia is bad but Zimbabwe is worse. The political situation in Zimbabwe is bad but North Korea is worse. (etc)

  • dieing philosopher!

    it is true, but then there has to be a way out of this, trusting our voters is one of it, I sincerely think so.

  • fiddlesticks

    [This comment has been deleted because it failed to heed our commenting guidelines. – Brendan ]

  • I’ve been reconsidering my comments above, and I think I may have come across as too Little Miss Sunshine about micro-targeting. Any new technique or technology has the potential to be misused, and micro targeting could be misused to the point that politicians are even more creepy than they are now.

    It reminds me of what was said during the experiments in democracy show (I forget who said it) that elections should be about the voters (or the people) and what we want, rather than about what aspects of the politicians are exciting or interesting. I think micro targeting, used well, gets us closer to that.

  • Ben

    If the strategy was to create more representative and responsive political entities rather than to effectively coerce voters into choosing between hues of red or blue micro-targeting might not be sardonic manipulation.

  • miriama

    I think Mr. Voice saved his best point (of three good ones) for last. This fracturing democracy is in desperate need of appeals to all of us to think in terms of the common good. Since the party of Lincoln is now all about private interests uber alles, it makes sense that they’d become the microtargeting whizbangs.

  • Microtargeting is just a technical tool, and like most technology it starts out in vertical applications (e.g., used by politicians and corporations) and then goes horizontal (to be used by regular people).

    Microtargeting could be used by women’s health groups (to remind people most at risk to get certain kinds of health screenings), child welfare groups (to reach out and educate people about parenting skills), charities (finding people most likely to contribute), etc.

    This issues that govern how microtargeting will be used primarily relate to privacy and data security — the availability of data on individuals, the rules relating to unsolicited contact of people, and identity theft protections, e.g.

  • plnelson

    “Since the party of Lincoln is now all about private interests uber alles, . . . ”

    If ONLY!

    I WISH the party of Lincoln had such an ethos; it would be a huge improvement over what we have now where the GOP continues to expand the power of the government to impose one narrow group’s idea of morality about everything from TV and radio content, to the definition of marriage to flag burning, on everyone. The GOP used to have a libertarian component to it, which could be counted on to look out for private interests, but like deficit hawks, they are yet another species made extinct by our (political) climate change.

  • jazzman

    Microtargeting as a result of data mining is at best a marketing tool directed at people who don’t mind their personal information being available to others if a benefit accrues from that data such as money saving coupons or discounted goods (store ID rewards cards) and other quid pro quo exchanges. At worst it is a profiling tool for those with less than ideal intent.

    I don’t think political microtargeting is particularly useful for persuading anyone but naïve independent voters who are ambivalent and can’t discern much of a difference between their options. This voter is likely to decide shortly before or in the voting booth and opt for the most recent plausible position that was suggested by whomever.

  • fiddlesticks

    [Post deleted by Open Source for not following the commenting guidelines.

  • keithgoodman

    I do Democratic microtargeting for several clients, and I have to say that a lot of the information that has been in the press of late has been somewhat distorted; in particular, the bourbon and gin example that is often cited is not a statistic that is actually useful when doing microtargeting in the real world. I’ve put a lot of detailed information on my blog about some of the myths, I hope to be adding a section on truths in the coming days. I’d also be interested in hearing what areas of microtargeting people want to hear more about. The blog, if you are interested in more, is: http://microtargeting.blogspot.com/

  • dieing philosopher!

    We live in the era which is full of technological advancements. The policy of microtargeting is actually not a new one, it has been practised from very ancient times. In India, when a circus or a musical show would arrive in any village, the people—the managers and the owners—would approach individual homes to tell them to attend the circus or a musical show. If there were decisions to be made, then two opposing parties would resort to microtargeting. When any new products, new ideas or anything new was to be publisised, then microtargeting was a very good option.

    I don’t know, today the community is becoming even smaller than what it was in ancient and medieval times. Sadly, the values of democracy have failed to reach to a common person at least in India, they are not aware of their political scenario. Isn’t it a task of enlightened ones to approach common herd of humanities (who’re oblivious of what’s happening around them, who’re pathetically ignorant, who’re sadly apathetic) and spread the values? Afterall, when will be democracy successful in any nation? When everybody will at least know where they stand. Unless everybody participates in any process, how can we judge it s success or failures?

    Of course, there are drawbacks of any technique, but then it will be a responsibility of a person who’ll resort to it, isn’t it? Just because some technique is objectionable, it would not be healthy to throw it completely, would it? Moreover, Microtargetting can only persuade, it can’t really force an action upon individuals.