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All Politics Is Customizable: The Pitfalls of Micro-Targeting

All Politics Is Customizable: The Pitfalls of Micro-Targeting

By Rick Ridder - December 8, 2014

The mantra of American politics—and to a large extent, even the politics of foreign countries—has long been former House Speaker Tip O’Neill’s declaration that “all politics is local.” First popularized by O’Neill in the mid-1930s, this aphorism became the rationale for almost any action taken by an elected official in support of any major or minor capital expenditure that could be construed to benefit that politician’s constituency.

But by the time O’Neill became speaker in 1977, the year Jimmy Carter assumed the presidency, American politics was changing. Carter eschewed the horse-trading and deal-making that made Congress function smoothly. His replacement, Ronald Reagan, went even further—to the point that in his 1981 inaugural address he proclaimed Washington to be the problem, not the solution, to what ailed everyday Americans.

The Reagan Revolution, as its acolytes liked to call it, brought a sharp focus on the needs of the individual. Political communications followed suit. A new mantra emerged among political operatives: “All politics is personal.”

This trend, perfected via “micro-targeting,” has only accelerated. Now, with the 2014 elections behind us, political professionals realize once and for all that it is no longer necessary to communicate broadly to individuals as part of a group. Campaigns are tailoring messages and communications to specific individuals, using references unique to that person. Today, “all politics is customizable.”

Through technology, we have moved from “a chicken in every pot” to “a chicken in your pot” to “a chicken in your pot – seasoned just the way you like.”

Such acute individualization has two implications for our democratic institutions, neither of them positive. First, customized communications creates a gap between what is promised in a campaign and the expectation of the individual citizen for delivery on that promise. Second, what our political leaders must do and say is fundamentally a Catch-22. To get elected to represent “the people,” leaders now make promises to represent each individual person. But if leaders appeal to every individual, there is no way, once they’re in office, to serve “the people.”

From Local to Personal

In the days before such projects as Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” stirred outrage about government waste, public works projects ranging from the opening of a rural post office named after the local pol to the massive Big Dig in Tip O’Neill’s native Boston ($24.3 billion price tag) brought federal tax dollars to communities, and the jobs associated with them. Such pork-barrel projects were a potent weapon in the re-election of politicians who boasted openly of their ability to “bring home the bacon.”

These benefits were not intended to serve specific individuals, based on who those individuals were and what they wanted; rather, they were far more community-oriented in their appeal. This was reflected in how campaigns communicated with voters. The language of political discourse, including such refrains as “jobs in our community” or “roads and highways that get us to work faster” and “new schools for our children,” was something elected officials uttered with pride.

Campaign tactics reflected this perspective, with an emphasis on billboards, posters, mailings to broadly specified groups (including all voters within a specific ZIP Code), and television ads that appealed to wide swaths of the community.

The focus on broad community benefits reflected a consumer environment in which emphasis was placed on a singular product or brand that would benefit the large families of the mid-20th century, or a broad group of individuals. At that time, brands and products had large appeal and features that were not much differentiated for diverse consumers.

Brand differentiation was limited so as to facilitate production. Well into mid-20th century, the home telephone was rarely any color other than black, and Western Electric—the de facto sole source of telephone equipment—provided few models from which to choose.

But by the latter part of the century, there was a significant increase in consumer choices, with increasing individualization of products, a trend that has dramatically accelerated in our own time. The ultimate example of this movement to individualization is the cellphone. Once mobile phones came on the scene, individuals owned their own telephone -- a personal, private communication device they kept with them. No longer was the family phone located in the kitchen, to be shared with parents, spouse, and siblings, a vestige of the pre-war party line. And it wasn’t tethered to a wall. It could go nearly anywhere you wanted to go.

In those early years of cellphones, a consumer could choose from a number of brands and handsets, as well as colors and designs. Yet, the interfaces were largely identical within a given brand. There were buttons to push, a screen to see the numbers being dialed, and perhaps a contact list. Not much else. It was a basic telephone—mobile, yes, and individual, but not yet customizable. That would come later, along with customization of political outreach.

By the end of the 1980s, O’Neill’s famous pronouncement was on its way to becoming obsolete. The language of campaigns was more often directed to emphasize the personal benefit that would accrue to the voter when he or she pulled the lever in the voting booth. Talking about fiscal issues, political candidates used phraseology such as “Let me tell you how this will impact your life” or “This is about your pocketbook” or “You and your family will see the benefits.”

Absent from politicians’ rhetoric were calls for community benefit or uplifting notes for the commonwealth. These were appeals to the singular benefit coming to the individual that also amplified the values of the individual. It is no surprise that the introduction of individual heroes at the State of the Union—those persons who represented the best values of our nation—began in the latter stages of the 20th century

Campaigns once again adapted commercial techniques through the use of demographically driven messaging. The marriage of the availability of voter files and computing capability allowed campaigns to select targets as specific as Republican men, age 45-55, who voted in four out the last five primaries and live in a single family home.

From Personal to Customizable

Since the early part of the 21st century, another change in the marketing of both commercial products and in the political sphere has occurred: mass customization.

Remember that black telephone? Today telephones come in innumerable colors, sizes, and screens. Then they become fully customizable with the availability of personalized applications. With the thousands of apps available for smartphones, hardly any two phones are exactly the same. The consumer is able to make his or her phone truly his or her own, just as the consumer can with a sleep number bed, a "build your own" automobile, and California customized closets.

Political campaign communications have followed suit. Taking the billions of bits of information available in the commercial world and applying that “big data” to campaign communications, a campaign can adapt its messaging to appeal to an individual practically down to his or her fingerprint. For instance, by matching a voter’s Internet cookies to an enriched voter file, a campaign professional can easily direct a specific online message about GMOs in baby food to a female who is 45 and sometimes—but not always—buys organic foods, has a household income over $70,000 a year, recently bought baby clothes, and lives in a specific area. This message is delivered as a pop-up or banner advertisement on only her computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Facebook can deliver campaign messages in newsfeeds to as few as 20 individuals at a time based on specific demographics and usage behavior. So your neighbor, who might be the same age, the same party affiliation, and the same gender as you, is receiving a very different candidate message from the same campaign are because he “liked” a particular football team on Facebook and you did not.

The Conflicts That Come With Customization

As campaigns now appeal to each voter’s specific issues, fears, wants, and desires through highly targeted messaging, they perpetuate the myth that, once in office, the candidate will do exactly what the individual voter wants. Yet there is no way that any candidate or party can deliver on such precise expectations once the election is over.

Unlike the commercial world, big data allows customized communication for the voter but not by the voter. It is precisely this distinction that causes a dissonance in voter expectations. On the one hand, they are able to customize their phone, their car, and their wardrobe, and—they are led to believe—their political candidates. But this last impression is a myth. Although they courted voters during election season on this basis, once in office elected officials in our binary political system have a far less expansive menu of options.

Do I follow the party leadership on this bill or not? Is this legislation good for my district or not? Should I vote yea on the president’s budget (and nominees) or nay?

These have always been the choices faced by politicians. The difference today is that elected officials have conditioned their constituents to expect differently. It is no surprise, then, that Americans are increasingly distrustful and disdainful of political candidates and parties—even the ones they voted for. Once the election is over, they no longer have the illusion that politics caters to their individual needs. Lacking control, many grow disenchanted and disengaged, sometimes asserting their individualism by voting for unlikely-to-win third party candidates. More often, they stay home, which was one unsung part of the 2014 midterm narrative.

Amplifying this disenchantment and creating a trap for voter expectations is the recent hyping of the political communications business itself. In tactics that have made a prophet of Marshall McLuhan, the tools of political communication have determined the message voters receive. Since 2008, campaign operatives have subordinated the substance of their candidates’ messaging to their means of communication—to the micro-targeting, Twitter feeds, Internet advertising buys, the size and the enhancements of campaign databases, and even the number of volunteer “boots on the ground” they put in the field. These practices leave voters confused: Are they voting for a slick campaign operation or a candidate with policy goals and values?

In other nations, where multiple political parties thrive under parliamentary systems (and strict laws prohibit personal data collection), there has been a rise of new political parties that may come closer to exactly reflecting an individual’s policy and ideological preferences. Given the limited ability for third parties to thrive in the American political system, such a development is unlikely to occur in the United States. Even if it did, we’d need as many political parties as there are smartphone apps to mollify the voters whom the Republicans and Democrats have so assiduously spoiled. 

Rick Ridder is a former presidential campaign manager and senior consultant for five other Democratic presidential campaigns. He is the president and co-founder of RBI Strategies & Research.

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