There's good reason the 2000 presidential candidates are scrambling to assemble unprecedented piles of early money, which will be spent trying to replicate President Clinton's success with a campaign technique known as "targeting." Unfortunately, this ruthlessly pragmatic means of winning votes could be Clinton's most significant contribution to the American electoral process.
To understand Clinton's dramatic effect on how candidates think, it's necessary to rewind the tape to the 1996 campaign. Clinton began advertising on television in June 1995, 17 months before Election Day--earlier than any presidential candidate before him. He spent freely (a record $18 million of soft money in TV advertising in '95 alone), and he spent strategically. Clinton's ads helped to redefine him in the eyes of the narrow segment of the public without which, his pollsters had determined, he could not win reelection. (The campaign had also identified those voters who could safely be ignored.) So instead of a broad-based campaign that might woo all Democratic voters, Clinton tailored himself and his message to appeal directly to the voters he needed. Since then, the politics of targeting have dominated American political life--policymaking as well as campaigns--as never before.
A campaign with a targeting strategy aims its TV and radio ads at the narrow slivers of the voter pie that are crucial to that campaign. The ads are accompanied by campaigning on the Web (and cyber fund-raisers), targeted e-mails and direct mail, increasingly sophisticated polling and focus groups, and new ways of assessing public reaction to various messages. For instance, Clinton's reelection campaign tested TV spots in malls before they hit the airways.
The tools of targeting are expensive, which helps to explain the extraordinary money chase of the current presidential candidates. (Already, four candidates have dropped out of the race, including Elizabeth Dole last week.) Targeting gives campaigns the ability to reach specific types of voters and to engineer the most efficient victory--with the least public involvement. It's like painting a portrait with a brush instead of a spray can. Who does it best greatly determines who governs.
These techniques have a peculiar logic: In many cases, candidates win by spending their resources to motivate voters who may be somewhat inclined to support them and by ignoring the growing numbers who have tuned out politics and aren't expected to vote.
The candidates and their parties aren't the only ones slicing up the electorate. Special interest groups do much the same thing with commercials in the Washington TV market designed to influence those in the federal government. Groups such as the conservative Citizens for Tax Reform and the liberal Sierra Club also run TV and radio campaign ads with messages aimed at the audience most inclined to take notice. Similarly, groups send targeted Internet messages, often involving harsh attacks on candidates who do not support their views. It is the political variant of niche marketing found throughout the American economy.
Of course, opinion polls, focus groups and TV advertising have been staples of American political campaigns for decades. But only in the second half of the Clinton era have they been employed with such sophistication--and with such dubious implications for American democracy. Clinton's public opinion research for his reelection campaign was steps ahead of the opinion polls of old. It examined all aspects of voters' social, consumer and political preferences. In some cases it verified assumptions. Clinton's supporters liked rock music more than his opponent Bob Dole's, for instance. Targeting also revealed a group of suburban swing voters, those who could go either way and were crucial to his victory. The campaign then aimed some of the new tools at this group. The Dole campaign was doing much the same thing, but not as well. Citizens not in the cross hairs of such targeting received scant attention, and the voter turnout in '96 fell to 49 percent--the lowest level in a presidential election year since 1924.
By '98, targeting was widespread and the two major parties focused on turning out their core supporters. Voter turnout dropped to 36 percent--the lowest for any midterm election since 1942. A few weeks before the election, one Republican consultant summed up the underlying logic of targeting: "Who cares what every adult thinks? It's totally not germane to this election," he told The Washington Post.
I received a vivid lesson on targeting on election night '98: No one has used targeting more effectively than Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. As a commentator for a Minneapolis TV station, I tried to explain to thousands of bewildered fellow Minnesotans how the ex-wrestler had managed to pull off what seemed to be the biggest upset in recent memory. But I, and most observers, initially missed a crucial factor that had shaped the result. Ventura's campaign was innovative. He shunned polls and interest groups, but his catchy TV ads flashed the campaign's Web address. Thousands went to the Web page and learned how to contribute or put up signs, the route of his marathon van tour and Ventura's positions in detail.
By energizing former nonvoters and apolitical twentysomethings to cast their votes for "The Body," Ventura's targeting helped raise voter turnout in my home state to the highest levels in the nation. This led many commentators to draw the wrong lesson from Ventura's victory--that his triumph heralded a new era of inclusive, participatory politics. In fact, it was a triumph of targeting. Ventura couldn't hope to win a majority, so his campaign aimed narrowly and won a plurality--which was good enough because there were three major candidates. The increased turnout is of course a good thing, but it is unlikely to result from the targeting efforts of other candidates, who rarely target nonvoters.
Beyond targeting, the 2000 presidential candidates can learn some disturbing "how-tos" from the Clinton playbook. Clinton greatly increased the influence of pollsters (remember Dick Morris?) over administration policy. During 1995 and 1996, some small-bore domestic policies, such as protecting minors from cigarette or tobacco ads, were enacted in part because they would appeal to the president's swing voters--socially moderate, fiscally conservative suburbanites. They became the administration's central domestic policy initiatives.
Clinton also used negative advertising--early. A cynical populace is receptive to such ads, and they have become a staple of targeting. Stephen Ansolabehere and Shanto Iyengar in their book "Going Negative: How Attack Ads Shrink and Polarize the Electorate" show how negative ads discourage voting among those with less education and with less knowledge of the candidates, who rely most heavily on TV for information about politics. Negative ads such as Clinton's in 1995 and 1996 may work with swing voters, but they run the risk of souring those who are the least likely to vote. I was not surprised that the percentage of voters expressing satisfaction with the presidential candidates in '96 fell 10 points from the '92 figure.
Contrast the Clinton effort with the bygone days of strong party organizations and powerful political machines. Forty years ago, campaign efforts focused on inclusive and partisan appeals--often concerning lunch-bucket economic issues broadly affecting the population--to an electorate that was less hostile to politics and parties. Careful targeting was not so feasible then. Candidates broadcast their messages widely to all within earshot because knowledge about the political tendencies of citizens was anecdotal and hard to come by. Now it is not, and it is clear to me that the era of exclusionary politics is here to stay.
Based on my 24 years of studying U.S. campaigns, I would propose a couple of reforms that would discourage targeting and help repopulate our voting booths. First, since the Supreme Court has ruled that interest groups have First Amendment protection for their own campaign advocacy activities, the only viable reform where such groups are concerned is to require full and speedy disclosure of where and how they spend their campaign and lobbying funds.
Second, if the parties and campaigns won't spend money to increase turnout, the nation needs to change electoral laws to bring more voters to the polls. We should also consider what other constitutional democracies do. Most have far higher voter turnouts than the United States. In just about all of them, voter registration is the duty of the government, not the individual. In addition to sending out reminder postcards, such governments are responsible for registering all adult citizens and verifying their home addresses before each election. In most of these countries, voters go to the polls less often than we do, and in each election the public decides fewer matters than is typical here. Structural changes in our election system may lead to larger turnouts, which would cause campaigns and lobbying groups to widen the focus of their campaign targeting.
Meanwhile, don't hold your breath waiting for another Ventura-style popular uprising. Political operatives--experts at the politics of exclusion--will continue to dominate American campaigns. Unless we change their playbook, the public's role in elections will continue to shrink.
Steven Schier is chair of the political science department at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. His book, "By Invitation Only: The Rise of Exclusive Politics in the United States" (University of Pittsburgh Press), will be published next year.