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Unraveling a Voter's DNA

Campaign strategists known as "microtargeters" comb through vast databases to codify the traits of various kinds of voters.

  • Poll Voters on What Issues They Support. A campaign wants to find likely supporters. It starts by trying to identify the kind of voters who have views similar to its candidate through a poll. A sample of 3,000 to 5,000 voters are asked their opinion on a range of issues.
  • Identify Traits of Issue Supporters. The campaign then obtains detailed consumer information about those voters and combines the information with their poll responses to establish a profile of who holds a specific viewpoint. The most ardent tax opponent, for example, could be a 42-year-old father of two who owns a home and a hatchback car and plays golf.
  • Search for Similar Traits in Other Voters. A database of all registered voters is created that includes the same information for them as for the polling sample. Voters are then sorted according to the models developed with the sample group.
  • Target Individual Voters. A campaign now has a list of men likely to be tax opponents that ranks them ¿ based on voting history ¿ according to their likelihood to vote. In phone calls and direct mail, it contacts those voters with an anti-tax message.

SOURCE: Microtargeter Blaise Hazelwood | GRAPHIC: By Seth Hamblin and Cristina Rivero, The Washington Post

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Romney's Data Cruncher

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"I wanted to break the independent-voter file into target segments and Alex's approach was the best way to do it, so I reached out to Alex and we, along with Tagg Romney and Alex Dunn of the Romney staff, sort of invented microtargeting in that race," Murphy said.

What did they find?

That a 32-year-old white Protestant woman with two children and a retired Roman Catholic male engineer -- while both independents -- were driven by often contradictory issues, Murphy said. "Some independents are more base Republican -- like, some are pure fiscal [voters], some are focused on education," he added.

All of this seems somewhat straightforward -- after all, anyone with even a passing interest in politics knows that a mother of two and a retired widower are probably motivated by different issues.

Wszolek, the Michigan-based direct-mail consultant, has known Gage since 1984 and worked closely with him to fine-tune a theory of political microtargeting. Wszolek acknowledged that "what you're doing is putting a very fine point on the obvious."

But, he added, the key insight of political microtargeting is that, rather than simply determining whether married men are more likely than unmarried women to support a candidate, a campaign can identify segments within larger demographic groups and tailor messages down to the household level -- an extraordinary amount of precision that helps turn a guessing game into a series of targeted strikes. If television advertising is painting with broad brush strokes, microtargeting is political pointillism.

The first step in doing this is conducting a large survey of voters. By matching up their political views with detailed information about their consumer habits, a model is established that can be applied to the population as a whole.

A campaign would then know which issues are important to an unmarried woman who subscribes to Outside magazine and is a frequent flier, and how they are different from issues important to an unmarried woman who has two grown children, uses corrective lenses and is an AARP member -- even if they are next-door neighbors.

"A lot of people were skeptical that a big sample would tell you anything different than a small sample," Wszolek said. "What we found with large-sample research [is] you see something totally different. That was Alex's central revelation."

Winning for Bush in 2004

It took TargetPoint six months -- and cost the Bush campaign $3.25 million -- to conduct surveys, overlay them with thousands of data points and break down the electorate into unique segments.

To Mehlman, having the information meant the campaign was fundamentally different from the one before. "In 2000, we very broadly talked to people on broad issues," he said. "In 2004, instead of talking about what we thought was most important, we talked about what the voters thought was most important."

In Ohio, the key battleground of the 2004 campaign, Gage's microtargeting showed that black voters -- who had traditionally not been drawn to the GOP -- wanted to hear candidates talk about education and health care. As a result, they received a series of contacts -- direct mail and phone calls, primarily -- emphasizing Bush's accomplishments on just those two issues. It was a much different message from the president's broader attempt to cast the election as a choice between staying the course in Iraq and the anti-terrorism effort or switching teams in midstream.

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