Politics & Government

Political campaigns trace voters' digital footprints to target their interests

This is the year you’re going to shut out the shouting and the charges and the ominously cheesy voice-overs of campaign commercials. Right?

You’ll hit the fast-forward button on your DVR when the spots commence. Or you’ll look away from the commercials while you fiddle with your smartphone or explore what’s on that handy iPad.

Sorry. There’s no escape.

Squads of campaign commandos hired by pols looking for your vote will chase you down.

With increasing sophistication, political organizations are fast adopting the tricks of retailers who’ve learned how to learn more about you. They’re tracking your digital footprints to better wave ads that will push your buttons, getting you outraged and out to the polls. They’re going online with talking points increasingly targeted to win elections niche by niche.

Been shopping online for a new gun? When you go to a news website, that could trigger an ad about a candidate’s fealty to the 2nd Amendment. Use the Web to identify that bird building a nest in your cottonwood tree? Don’t be surprised to see an electronic banner on HuffingtonPost.com trumpeting the same politician’s endorsement from the Sierra Club.

Electronic “cookies” usually invisible to you pile up in your Web browser, surmising your interests and announcing them to political campaigns. In turn, campaign managers use those clues to microtarget messages aimed to persuade or motivate you.

Microtargeting is hardly new to elections. Fastidious politicos long ago started scribbling particulars about voters on index cards and storing them in shoe boxes, all the better to make meaningful impressions in their door-to-door canvassing.

While politics still trails the corporate world at tracking people online, consultants say the level of sophistication brought to the digital battlefield will hit new highs in the 2012 campaign cycle. One campaign consultant said that digital operations that nibbled away just 2 percent of a campaign budget in 2008 now might gobble up 8 percent of spending this year — mostly in hopes of transferring the intelligence to the pavement-pounding, airwave-blasting strategies of old school politicking.

It could be all the more valuable by adding in social networking — the ways our Facebook “likes” and other behavior clue a campaign to the issues that get your blood boiling. Now campaigns know not just what you care about, but where you look for information.

“We know more about you than ever, and how to make that work,” said Clay Barker, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party.

“There are more ways to find out what moves you and where to reach you,” said Roy Temple, a longtime Missouri Democratic strategist. “Things are shifting.”

The mining of digital data allowing such a sharp focus on voters could be particularly powerful in the ways it helps campaigns target undecided voters and play to their pet peeves.

While that may be handy for campaigning, some analysts see it as destructive to reasonable governing.

“Campaigns capitalize on single issue voting because they don’t think a general approach works,” said Allan Cigler, a political science professor at the University of Kansas. “Then when you campaign to single, targeted issues, you’ve got to deliver on those issues and those issues only. That makes compromise more difficult.”

Digital footprints

Consider how the path to a voter’s consciousness has changed.

Online Americans now spend roughly 30 hours a month peering at their smartphones, more than double what they did in 2008. In recent years, television stations, newspapers and magazines have moved much of their content online — because people are shifting their time from watching TV and reading publications to wandering the Internet. Even those watching TV don’t watch as closely. Some 40 percent of electronic tablet and smartphone owners regularly use their gadgets while watching television.

And while the Twitter microblogging social network existed in recent campaign cycles, it’s gained a greater hold on the national attention span. The Pew Internet & American Life project reported last week that the number of online adults who use Twitter daily doubled in the last year to 8 percent. Among younger voters, whose voting patterns are least likely to have settled into a pattern, nearly a third use Twitter.

Overall, the number of Americans checking in with a social network doubled between 2008 and 2011, according to another Pew report. Now, about half the U.S. population has an identity on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or other social network.

The number of American adults who regularly use the Internet nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010. We now spend the equivalent of one work week a month using the Web.

When you go online, you reveal, often unwittingly, much about yourself. Through the past decade marketers have quickly learned that the news articles consumers “like” with a click or the friends they link with are hints about their spending habits. Now campaigns are tracing some of the same political footprints for signs of political tendencies.

The work can start by looking broadly at Internet conversations — on news sites, blogs, social networks — to take the electorate’s pulse.

An emerging class of businesses measure the volume of discussions on specific issues, whether a particular issue is generating positive or negative buzz, and identifying the words or phrases that pop up most frequently.

Tracy Panko, CEO of Spiral 16, a social media monitor in Overland Park, said some campaigns have begun to study Internet chatter and use that analysis to tailor their rhetoric. One U.S. Senate candidate was taking flack for what the campaign saw as inaccurate perceptions of personal spending habits. By getting a better idea of who was saying what about the candidate online, Panko said, the campaign was able to defend itself against a potential problem.

“What we’re doing has not replaced what (campaigns) did in the past,” she said. “It’s supplementing it.”

Indeed, campaigns say television, radio and mail campaigns continue to dominate political spending.

“People are watching TV with an iPhone or an iPad in their hands,” said Martin Hamburger, a Washington, D.C.,-based Democratic political consultant. “But they’re still watching TV.”

If anything, he said, campaign video increasingly needs to mesh with online strategies. Those websites trumpeted in TV commercials — go to www.ReadJoesRecord.com — aren’t particularly designed to change your mind. The expectation is that most people looking at such sites are already supporters. Rather, sites grab more information about you to remind you to vote, to call your neighbor or, best yet, send money.

In fact, Kansas City Republican political consultant Jeff Roe said the campaign allure of the Internet is dollars. To raise money with mail solicitations, it can easily cost 90 cents to raise a dollar. Online, it’s more like 15 cents.

Other digital tools his Axiom Strategies uses — particularly the matching of consumer data with voting history — pay the greatest dividends when teamed with the same things that have always won elections.

“This comes down to the pavement,” Roe said.

Getting granular

So increased information about voters means that 25 volunteers walking neighborhoods can have the effect of 200 — because ever-richer voter files sort out the undecided folks who can swing an election.

When they knock on your door, they already know a lot about you. Canvassers can now carry smartphones armed with information about how often you vote and in which primaries, a reasonable guess at your household income, the magazines you subscribe to and the types of political causes you’ve supported.

In that same way, campaigns can also track down people online. Doing so can raise more cash, remind and motivate supporters to venture out to the polls or begin lobbying the undecided.

They turn to firms like Precision Network, which matches voter registration files with consumer data. It uses those dossiers to direct ads online. Sometimes it’s pre-roll (commercials that run before a Web surfer watches a video) or banner ads that target tightly defined demographic groups.

“We’re using the same technology that Nike and Clorox and all the rest have been using to brand their items,” said Precision’s founder and president, Tim Lim. “As that technology gets better, we can focus more of your money at the voters who matter.”

And in newly novel ways. In 2010, then-congressional candidate Michele Bachman was painting her opponent as a supporter of taxes on corn dogs, deep-fried bacon and beer. Figuring an ad on the subject would carry special weight with fairgoers, the campaign created an ad intended to play on mobile phones within a few miles of the Minnesota state fairgrounds.

Google Inc. says it has made significant gains with campaigns this cycle both for selling search ads and in commercials that run at the start of some YouTube videos. Its biggest selling point is that the campaigns only pay for ads that actually draw some attention.

“We’re targeted and measurable,” said Rob Saliterman, who heads Google’s sales to Republicans and conservative groups.

Such super niches can come to define modern politics, said St. Louis University political scientist Ken Warren. The fight is over that mild middle. More than 90 percent of voters have already made up their minds in the presidential election, he said. Things are much the same in U.S. Senate and House races and most statewide political races.

“All the money is being poured into finding and turning the 7 to 10 percent gettables,” Warren said. “And they’re the least engaged, most uninformed part of the electorate.”

Motivating them to make a choice and cast a vote, then, can hinge all the more crucially on learning what issues get them jazzed.

“You find the thing that they really care about,” said Mark Nevins, a partner in the Democrat consulting firm The Dover Group. “And you get them to do something about it.”

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