You Will be Targeted at the Most Personal Level by Big Data and Political Ads
Political campaigning and ads are getting more personal than ever, thanks to big data. In Ohio, the Senate campaigns of Rob Portman and Ted Strickland have volunteers whose job is to go door-to-door with iPads and collect data that will be used to create ads specifically targeting you this fall.
The Beacon Journal’s Doug Livingston has been researching big data's role in political ads. He says the way campaigns approach voters has become even more tech-savvy and intimate this election year.
The roots of big data
Livington says the emergence of big data in campaigning started about 10 years ago, when former Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean said each state needed to build a unified strategy at the grassroots level.
That led to state parties developing and maintaining voter files by compiling a sketch of all the likely Democratic and swing voters with information about how they behave and how they’ve voted in the past. "It’s much more than what you can download from the secretary of state’s database," he says.
He says that with each campaign, this approach got a little more tech savvy.
In 2008, it really came to a head. Then-Sen. Barack Obama found ways to reach voters in a more cost-effective manner.
"They found ways to look at the data about what [voters] watch and read, so they could send ads to them in the off-peak markets. You’re spending half the price to send twice as many ads to people who really matter," Livingston says.
Going digital door-to-door
In 2012, this tactic starting going digital. Now, volunteers collect information door-to-door with iPads and software apps.
Livingston followed a couple of Kent State University college Republicans who are Rob Portman volunteers.
"They would ask, 'Who are you voting for: Ted Strickland, Rob Portman or don’t you know?' If they say Ted Strickland, the interview’s over.
"If they say Rob Portman, the next thing they want t know is, 'What issue matters to you most?' And with that piece of information, they can then ensure they don’t lose you as a voter between now and November because they can send you targeted ads.
Solidifying the base and reaching swing voters
The goal is to find those voters who are really on the fence and identifying the issues that are likely to attract them to your candidate. The information is gathered and cataloged into a software program called i360.
Americans For Prosperity, an organization backed by the Koch brothers, put $50 million into the development of this software program sometime between 2010 and 2014. Others have been using it too: John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Jeb Bush.
And Livingston says Democrats use similar programs that use third-party data constants to sketch a prototypical voter.
"Let's say out of the 1,000 people we have information for, we know that these 400 are going to vote for Ted Strickland. This is how they behave, this is how they voted, and these are the TV shows that they watch -- all the way down to the cars they drive.
"They take that information to build and sketch a model of the typical Ted Strickland voter. Then, they take that model and they overlay it on the other 600 folks who they don’t know who they’re voting for and they say, 'Well this looks similar to these 300 people.' So those 300 people they know are potentially swing voters they could draw to their side."
Then, Livingston says, they'll start targeting those voters with digital ads on their Twitter and Facebook feeds and other platforms.
"Maybe you’ll get an ad for Rob Portman on your Pandora app and you’ll wonder why it’s dealing specifically with heroin -- something that is specifically an issue for you because you know people suffering from it. Well, it’s because you told a campaigner that heroin is a concern of yours and they use that information some moths later to target you."
Is the big data model effective?
"I think the numbers speak for themselves. If it wasn’t effective, they probably wouldn’t be ramping up efforts to do even more of it.
"Some of the folks who answered the door and divulged some information unwittingly understand that when they go online, they’re tracked. You have a digital footprint that someone is watching. Depending on the (respondents') age, most folks know that this is happening. (But) I don’t think that they fully understand or are aware of how much the political campaigns are taking advantage of it."
HOW TO CONSUME POLITICAL ADS WITHOUT THEM CONSUMING YOU
About those political ads: Stop! Look! Don’t go crazy!
You can’t stop political attack ads from invading your personal space. Millionaires and billionaires have made sure of that with court decisions and friends in Congress. But you can render them harmless – even make them useful.
Follow these steps:
Who came up with the four steps?
David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, and co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network. In conversations with Ohio journalists, his organization has challenged Ohio media to help citizens identify a campaign process that works better. Find a model you like? Make a suggestion on the Your Vote Ohio Facebook page and media will explore it.
Here’s how to fact-check the message