Microtargeting in Politics

Eugene Burdick, best known as co-author of Fail-Safe and The Ugly American, also published (in 1964) a novel titled The 480, dealing with the use of advanced computer techniques to influence election results. (The number “480” refers to the number of demographic categories into which the analysts have divided the American electorate…the book was inspired by actual work done by a company called Simulmatics on John F Kennedy’s campaign.) The computing in the novel is done by an IBM 7094 (portrayed in slightly sinister terms), a machine which has less processing capacity than the computer on which you are reading this, but which looked a lot more impressive.

I was reminded of this book by a Washington Post article on microtargeting in contemporary politics. The idea is to identify groups of voters like “education-obsessed Hispanic moms” in New Mexico, who respond favorably to mailings about the No Child Left Behind law. Or, on the other side, Democrats microtargeting “Christian Conservative Environmentalists.” The article says that microtargeting has been enabled by cheaper and more powerful computer hardware and by the availability of more information about individuals and zip-code-level demographics.

Another example given involves the use of microtargeting by the Romney campaign. Romney voters were well-represented among what the article calls “‘country-club Republicans,’ well-off folks who care deeply about financial issues that favor their portfolios. TargetPoint, a political consulting firm, identified another group, one “not quite sold on Romney but susceptible to a pitch on his economic policies. These were people who didn’t make as much money as the country-clubbers but displayed consumer habits similar to those of the snob set — drove sport-utility vehicles, went to the theater, bought natural foods.”

I’m not sure whether term “snob set” comes from the WP writer (Steven Levy) or from TargetPoint, but would observe that people who drive SUVs, go to the theater, and buy natural foods represent a substantial part of the WP’s subscriber base. Levy also suggests that “the Romney camp has sorted out individuals whose striving makes them vulnerable to a pitch that, at least with their current financial status, is at odds with their economic interests.” Maybe some of these people are actually intelligent enough to think in terms of their expected future economic condition, as well as their present one, and to want to preserve economic opportunity, for others as well as themselves, rather than playing zero-sum games based on a static view of economic stratification.

Anyhow, The 480 is an interesting and well-writen novel.