Targeting and turnout in the 2012 US Presidential Election

One of the big questions in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential Election was what the turnout would be. Would the supposed “enthusiasm gap” lead to lower turnout amongst some of the key demographics behind Obama’s 2008 victory, like African-Americans and college students? Would the absence of the extraordinary volunteer mobilization seen around the Presidents’ first campaign leave his reelection effort without the capacity to expand the electorate through large-scale voter registration efforts and an extensive and intense effort to get out the vote?

This seems to have been the conviction all the way to the top of the Republican Party. Reports suggest that Romney, Ryan, and key people around them remained confident of victory to the very end, seeing that they were “hitting their numbers” in many districts—only to realize as Election Night unfolded that turnout would exceed their expectations in most swing states, raising the bar for victory and leaving them in the unenviable position of having achieved their tactical goals but lost the strategic battle nonetheless.

Preliminary reports on turnout suggest that the Obama re-election campaign succeeded again in shaping the very nature of the electorate through massive investments of time, effort, and money in both the technical infrastructure and the raw manpower necessary for an effective up-to-date ground game. Yet again, they have set the standard against which other presidential campaigns will be measured (the way Karl Rove and the Bush-Cheney reelection bid did in 2004). The Republican Party no doubt had a better ground game this time than in 2008, but the RNC task force created to study the Democratic campaign has plenty of work to do if the GOP hopes to close the strategic gap.

But what does the increased emphasis on a combination of old-fashioned organizing and door-to-door campaigning and increasingly sophisticated database-assisted voter targeting mean beyond the strategic level of how campaigns are waged and won? What does it mean for popular participation in American democracy?

This debate, especially concerning whether various forms of micro-targeting will lead to electoral red lining and leave people outside the democratic process is not new. It has been going on for more than a decade as the political parties have been catching up with the move towards more detailed and individual-level behavioral targeting long used in corporate communications and commercial marketing.

There have been two basic positions—

First, the pessimistic one outlined by Marshall Ganz in the early 1990s, suggesting that ever more precise targeting of voters will narrow the electorate by leading campaigns to focus their efforts on fewer and fewer people leaving others outside the process.

Second, the more optimistic one outlined by Peter Wielhouwer in the early 2000s, suggesting that more sophisticated targeting would also allow campaigns to identify more voters it makes sense to talk to and try to motivate, and thus expand the electorate as more people are turned out to vote.

Based on the evidence we’ve seen so far from 2012, who’s right? Both, in a way—at least Nate Silver’s analysis shows that turnout was steady in the swing states (and increased in several) even as it was down by about nine percent in the rest of the country. In some states, intensive and data-driven field efforts have expanded the electorate, in much of the country, only the usual suspects came out to vote.

This shouldn’t surprise us, as it is in line with the incentives that electoral campaigns face—as I wrote in my book Ground Wars based on research on previous election cycles:

Does the increasingly precise and individualized targeting possible today, then, expand the electorate, as some have suggested, or does it in fact narrow it, as others have argued? On closer inspection it turns out it does both, depending on the strategic situation. On the one hand, the new dominant targeting scheme identifies numerous new high-value persuasion and get-out-the-vote targets that were entirely invisible under the demographic and geographic targeting schemes that preceded it. The swing voter with an unusual demographic profile can suddenly be identified. The infrequently voting partisan who happens to live among supporters of the other party can be ferreted out. In this sense, the dominant targeting scheme clearly expands the universe of targets and thus enables much more ambitious persuasion and GOTV programs. But on the other hand, campaign assemblages typically only bother to contact such targets if they face strong opposition. Thus, as Marshall Ganz has warned since the early 1990s, in the vast majority of districts where elections are not effectively contested, the new political targeting may in fact narrow the electorate by helping campaigns focus on an ever more clearly defined plurality of highly motivated and highly partisan supporters who turn out on a regular basis to return the incumbent to office. But in competitive districts the new targeting scheme makes it possible for campaign assemblages to leverage their considerable resources to actually expand the electorate in significant ways, both in terms of persuasion efforts and get-out-the-vote efforts—and when the stakes are high enough, even through voter registration efforts. These have long been left for well-meaning civic associations and nonpartisan groups, but were taken up again and pursued with considerable energy and finesse by the Bush campaign among conservative Christians in 2000 and 2004, and by the Obama campaign among African Americans, Latinos, and college students in 2008 on the basis of new forms of political targeting.

The preliminary numbers on turnout from Silver and others suggests this is exactly what happened in 2012. And in the future too, we should expect to see ever more intense efforts to reach more and more potentially persuadable or potentially “mobilizable” voters in high-stakes, well-resourced, competitive elections, even as the majority of Americans who live in states and districts that are not competitive will hear less and less from campaigns as they, quite reasonably, use all available information to concentrate their resources where they think they matter.

My book, Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns, deals with how American political campaigns mobilize, organize, and target their field operations, using large numbers of volunteers and paid part-timer workers to contact voters at home at the door or over the phone. It is published by Princeton University Press and is available on Amazon.

(cross-posted to Politics in Spires)

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2 responses to “Targeting and turnout in the 2012 US Presidential Election

  1. The “voters in the crosshairs” article that warns of the interaction of money, consultants and targeting was written after experience developing the “occasional voter” strategy (now known as sporadic voters) in California election — focused especially at increasing voter turn out in communities of color where the challenge was motivation to vote, not persuasion of for whom to vote. And it worked. Volunteers could be recruited from “always” voters and put to work motivating the “occasional” voters in their neighborhoods. However, it was only undertaken when a candidate had a specific interest in motivating the unmotivated as opposed to persuading the already motivated. These were usually liberal democrats who thought they would need a margin from the lest motivated communities to win. At the same time, however the overall effect of the targeting was to further marginalized the already marginalized.

    • And that’s no doubt what all forms of targeting are used for today too in districts where candidates can get away with simply catering to the base and making sure they come out to vote–in other words, in most elections in most areas. But in genuinely contested elections, fewer in number, but obviously still important, the incentives are different, and campaigns who want to win will (and should) try to target both mobilization and persuasion universes. There, well-financed, well-run, and well-targeted campaigns will expand turnout, as we saw in the swing states of the 2012 Presidential Election despite the drop in turnout in most other states.

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