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Va. Gubernatorial Hopefuls Use Data to Zero In on Voters

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 28, 2005

RICHMOND -- The Democratic and Republican candidates for Virginia governor are using vast databases of demographic information and the consumer habits of state voters to create precision advertising that rivals the best of Madison Avenue.

Armed with sophisticated new polling techniques refined by both national parties in the 2004 presidential election, Republican Jerry W. Kilgore and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine have compiled detailed profiles based on how old voters are, what houses they live in, what newspapers they read, what restaurants they eat at and how much money they make.

Do Kilgore's voters read biographies, watch foreign flicks and shop at Nordstrom? Will two-parent households in Chantilly making $50,000 a year vote for Kaine? Which voters can be lured to the polls by messages about abortion, immigration or taxes?

With the click of a computer mouse, both campaigns will soon know the answer to those kinds of questions. The goal: direct mail letters and voter drives designed not for the masses, but instead for tiny, well-defined slices of the state's voting population.

It's called microtargeting, and in a close election like the one shaping up in Virginia, political experts say it could be decisive.

"Our message stays the same no matter who we talk to. But different issues, or different pieces, are going to be more important to some people," said Mo Elliethee, Kaine's communications director. "Microtargeting really gives campaigns the ability to speak directly to voters in ways they haven't been able to before."

Marketers, law enforcement agencies, security officials, background screeners and now politicians are tapping into the same commercially available databases with the goal of rating people with laserlike accuracy.

"Private industry spends billions of dollars on this targeting. The companies think it works. Why wouldn't it work for politicians?" said Peter Swire, a law professor at Ohio State University and an expert on privacy and technology.

But the use of such precise research in political campaigns raises concerns about the demise of a shared public discourse on the important issues of the day.

"One worry is that candidates will talk out of a thousand sides of their mouth," Swire said. "What if they have a thousand messages that are different for every tiny part of the population? It's much harder to get accountability for what candidates say."

Operatives in both campaigns are reluctant to provide details of their microtargeting efforts. Both sides refuse to say much about their methods, fearing that political countermeasures could be effectively deployed.

Kilgore campaign aides, for example, have divided Virginia voters into 34 categories, but they won't divulge what they are. Democrats declined to reveal the "scores" they give voters to determine how likely they are to be supporters.

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