In his recent article in The Week, Ryan Cooper discusses the use of big data and micro targeting in the recent midterm elections. He argues that the Democrats use of these tools was too extreme and not policy-focused enough. He points to this as a potential reason for the low Democratic voter turnout on Election Day. This is an interesting argument, especially following our readings about the importance of data use in campaigns, specifically Controlling the Message in a Networked Age: Data, Strategic Communication, and the 2012 Presidential Election by Kreiss and Welch.
Kreiss and Welch point out the importance of data use in a political campaign, and use the 2012 Obama campaign as an example of a successful effort to analyze electorate data and target voters with audience-specific content. However, they conclude that “while big data, voter modeling, and targeting were at the forefront of the 2012 election, campaigning was still premised as much on the old fashioned attempts to generate interest, enthusiasm, and political desire among the electorate” (Kreiss & Welch).
This point aligns with Cooper’s discussion of the Democrats failed use of “data politics” (Cooper, 2014) in the 2014 midterm campaigns. While Cooper is not arguing that these micro targeting and data-based techniques are unimportant, he believes that the bombardment of voters with audience-specific messaging can lead to party and candidate resentment. Instead, he argues that less frequent messaging that simply describes a candidate’s policies and why they are important will generate more voter interest.
Cooper relates the Democrats’ tactics to those of retail stores attempting to get customers to make a final purchase. Although customers appreciate being helped or being asked to start a store credit card, when all retail stores in a mall do this, the tactics can annoy customers. The constant emails, phones calls and online advertising used by the Democrats in the midterm election campaign appears to have had similar effects on voters. This is especially true when the messaging does not speak to a candidate’s political platform, instead focuses on begging for money or attacking an opponent. While the Democratic candidates raised plenty of money, they also “failed to turn out Democratic voters; indeed, the 2014 election may well have had the lowest turnout in recent American history” (Cooper, 2014).
The Democrats use of data in the 2012 Obama campaign was successful and more advanced than their Republican counterparts. However, it appears that the party may have taken its data use and micro targeting too far, making it “deeply irritating” (Cooper, 2014) in the eyes of the electorate. Although there are many other factors surrounding the Democratic losses in the midterm elections (an unpopular Democratic president, an unproductive legislature, etc.), its potential overuse of data politics is something that should be considered in the 2016 campaign. Additionally, messaging should consist of the candidate’s stance on policies that will affect voters instead of the “mix of nudges, focus-grouped slogans, and micro-targeted pitches” (Cooper, 2014) that the party used in the recent campaign. As audiences become more aware of the data collection and analytics occurring, they can feel manipulated and become skeptical of political messaging. This only increases the importance of sending concise and informative messages that simply explain why a candidate is worth voting for, instead of elaborate attempts to persuade.
One thing that Cooper, Kreiss and Welch do not discuss is that these intense voter targeting methods can cause some to feel an invasion of privacy. This is something we have discussed briefly in class, but not related to much specific research. Kreiss and Welch do point out that targeted political advertising is unpopular with Americans, but the reason for its unpopularity is not mentioned. Additional research could clarify whether an invasion of privacy is what makes political advertising unpopular or if the multitude of messaging is simply annoying. It could be a combination of both things; however, understanding why this micro targeting dismays voters is important, as is considering the extent to which it keeps voters from going to the polls on Election Day.
Before 2016, Democrats should compare campaign success to use of big data and micro targeting methods to get a better understanding of what worked and what did not work in the attempt to get voters to the polls.
Cooper, R. (2014, November 6). How Big Data sucked the soul out of Democratic politics. The Week.
Kreiss, D., & Welch, C. Controlling the Message in a Networked Age: Data, Strategic Communications, and the 2012 Presidential Election.