Micro-targeting is America’s latest political export

Political advisor Jim Messina, a pioneer of micro-targeting during President Obama’s re-election campaign. (Photo credit: Jarle Naustvik/Flickr)

Citizens in the United Kingdom head to the polls today for the first time after a major electoral reform in 2011 that might well be called the law of unintended consequences. A measure that severely limited the ability of the prime minister and his party to call snap elections at propitious moments, curbing a huge advantage the sitting government enjoyed, has instead opened the door to the kind of permanent campaign well known to citizens of the United States, where preparations for the next election begin the day after the last one.

Now that parliament faces re-election on a fixed day, and preparations can begin well in advance, the short election campaigns that had been a feature of British politics are giving way to longer contests, and with them all the political apparatus (and even apparatchiks) of American politics.

It’s nothing new for U.S. political consultants to offer their expertise in foreign elections. Stanley Greenberg is most famously President Bill Clinton’s pollster, but he also worked for British Prime Minister Tony Blair. More recently, the Republican consulting firm Jamestown Associates worked for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while Jeremy Bird, a campaign aide of President Barack Obama, worked to oust him in the election last March. But what is new is America’s latest political exports: data mining and micro-targeting. These techniques allow political operatives to sift through masses of personal information about voters — where they shop and what they buy and more — and develop specific messages to appeal to the characteristics of the voter.

One of the masters of this new political alchemy is Jim Messina, who ran Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign that turned out comfortable margins of victory in each battleground state that the president needed to secure a second term. The ruling Tories hired him last August to provide strategic advice, hoping that he could provide the same kind of magic — the right message to deliver to the voters most likely to respond to it — that he specializes in. Messina, a lifelong Democrat, offered little in the way of explanation for selling his services to the conservative Tories and their embattled leader, Prime Minister David Cameron (who, like Obama in 2012, will face the voters in a weak economy). But given his track record, it’s easy to see why Messina appealed to the Tories.

The 2012 Obama campaign relied on a massive database of information on voters, supplemented with information provided by smart phone apps by paid canvassers and a larger army of volunteers. It also used sites like YouTube, buying ads with different messages designed to appeal to viewers whether they clicked on Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa or Frank Ocean videos. Because of the technique’s success, it will rapidly join the stump speech, the lapel pin and the 30-second attack ad in the repertoire of campaigns. And that might have a troubling impact for two reasons.

First, the press and public can track ad spending, view political commercials that air on television or cable and record campaign speeches, but we can’t track individual one-on-one interactions between campaign operatives and voters. So while my friendly neighborhood canvasser can assure me that Senator Filibuster favors ending corporate welfare and subsidies, an Iowa canvasser can assure an Iowa voter that job one in a Filibuster administration is expanding government support for ethanol. Unless the Iowa voter and I happen to compare notes, we will have a very different impression of what a candidate’s priorities really are. The old political tactic of telling the voters what they want to hear — made almost impossible in the era of ubiquitous smartphones with video and YouTube — will make a comeback. Of course, that makes it that much harder to govern. While politicians might find a way to promise everyone everything, keeping those promises is an entirely different matter.

Secondly, whereas ad spending is disclosed to both the Federal Election Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, door-to-door canvassing isn’t reported, and YouTube, Facebook and other Internet-based media ads don’t have the same disclosure requirements that broadcast ads have (“This message paid for by Filibuster for President”). A stealth campaign — funded by dark money and avoiding disclosure of its activities by building a volunteer network — could collect data and target voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond with little public disclosure.

It might already be happening now.