How Campaigns 'Microtarget' You

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

President Barack Obama greets workers following a speech at the Master Lock factory on February 15, 2012 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Getty)

Recap from It's a Free Country.

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, Sasha Issenberg of Slate talks about the different ways campaigns—including the Obama administration—are using data analytics to target their message to voters.  He wrote the piece titled, "Dreamcatcher."

Project Dreamcatcher

Campaigns are watching you.

In a recent article for Slate, Sasha Issenberg detailed new technology that presidential campaigns are using to mine and organize data about voters. Campaigns can then use this information—collected in person; through public records; or, increasingly, online—to produce personalized ads and communications, ones that use your name, or addresses issues important to you—and in terms that resonate with you.

Digital text analytics, Issenberg said, has made the business of "microtargeting" voters all the more savvy.

It's all well and good to throw web ads at people and get them to move in and out of a site, but if you don't know who they are or where they vote or what party they are, it's either inefficient or often counterproductive.

Issenberg writes in his article that the Obama campaign's "Project Dreamcatcher" is one such analytic initiative meant to solve these problems: "If a voter writes in a Web form that her top concern is the war in Afghanistan, should she be asked [by the Obama campaign] to enlist as a 'Veterans for Obama' volunteer, or sent direct mail written to placate foreign-policy critics?"

Revenge of the nerds

Until recently, there was no way for campaigns to answer that question. It used to be that a staffer could go door-to-door asking something like "Romney or Obama?" and collect responses that translate nicely into usable data: the answer to that kind of question can be a 1 or a 2, Issenberg explained.

But the reasons why Romney or Obama, or whoever else, wasn't easily converted into data. Now that technology allows campaigns the space to store ever-increasing quantities of information, the means to measure that information analytically, and the opporunity to build complex mathematical functions that can predict effective outreach strategies—getting pretty geeky, right?—the game has changed.

That information often had nowhere to go, and so it doesn't easily turn into a 1 or a 2. The challenge of the Dreamcatcher project is to effectively turn that into a number that can then be pooled with all the other stuff that is easily represented as numbers. Once you have all these as variables that can be interchanged, you can build algorithms that can be predictive.

What campaigns learned from catalogs

Issenberg pointed out that voters may not recognize just how much campaigning has evolved. The house looks the same, he said, but the plumbing's gotten extremely complicated.

To voters, campaigns are going to look a lot like they did in 2008. But there are these major innovations going on behind the scenes at campaigns based on how they use data, and it's going to be very hard for voters to understand whats going on.

Perhaps there's a simpler way to put it.

The information that campaigns in the 1980s used to decide whether to send you a flyer has now been merged with the information that L.L. Bean used in the 1990s to send you a catalog.

Comments [5]

ethan from bk

i'm a person in my mid-twenties, and i hope i'm somewhat representative of a growing trend among educated young americans--i do exactly what your guest described. none of my browsers keep cookies session-to-session (or accept third party), i do not remember logins or passwords, and i use guerillamail to sign up for accounts that i don't wish to have my information (even my junk email).

more people doing this will put data-mining in its place.

Aug. 07 2012 11:29 AM
David from Fredericksburg, VA

Doesn't apply to me as I don't talk to campaigners. It's none of their business how I have or will vote.

In the end it doesn't matter - nearly all politicians are liars who say what ever it takes to get elected and then do what they damn well please once they're in office

Feb. 21 2012 11:29 AM
John A.

Ed from Larchmont,
By allowing those to oppose Obama to use abortion as a wedge issue I could allow far less worthy leaders to get a vote that could be amoral for other reasons, including: Unjust wars, Disregard for the poor, Abuse of our common environment, Financial favoritism, the Maintenance of the rule of law, just to name a few. While GWB isn't running this time round, I'm still keeping a watchful eye for the issues of conscience for All involved - both sides & many issues.

Feb. 21 2012 11:11 AM
Mike from Jersey City from New Jersey

HHMM. So now On the Line is doing political commercials for the Obama Campaign? Maybe's there's some truth to that Drudge / Media Matters stuff.

Feb. 21 2012 10:00 AM
Ed from Larchmont

In response to the ad for this segment, where the woman said she was against abortion, etc., it should be noted that no Catholic can in good conscience vote for President Obama. He promotes abortion in all arenas, and now is attacking religious liberty. He has disqualified himself as far as a Catholic voter is concerned.

Feb. 21 2012 08:27 AM

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