What’s the best way to win an election?

Does Micro-Targeting Work?

Is it best to win an election by sending many messages to persuade diverse groups or one big message to persuade the entire populace?

For years now, the trend in political communications has been toward micro-targeting for micro-demographics. As Will Durst (from the SF Chronicle) humorously points out:

“Small nimble groups have replaced the old lumbering matrices of yesteryear. No longer does America have to duck while designations of Soccer Moms and NASCAR Dads are thrown our way: having become hopelessly outdated and appallingly unwieldy due to their exceptionally large sampling. These are tinier tastes, which can be more easily targeted like lasers taking out flies on Wisconsin barn roofs a mile and a half away.”

Not only is this trend bad for democracy, its proponents may also be wrong. The proliferation of media channels (which allow candidates to reach ever more distinct demographic niches) and the explosion in the amount of consumer data (which seems to give political gurus the knowledge to exploit these niches) give the impression that micro-targeting is impossible to defeat.

But it is not the best way to win elections. More likely, it is the loser’s course of last resort.

The rules of the electoral game are quite clear: get more people across the 50 states to vote for the candidate of choice. Going in, we know that some diehards will only vote for Republicans or Democrats. So, campaigners need to focus on the folks in the middle, the well-known “swing voters.” The key question: how should they approach this group?

Across many issues, FrameWorks has demonstrated that it is best to tackle this crowd all at once. The idea is to shape a conversation around common interests and beliefs by appealing to shared values and knowledge. The right message can then build on this foundation to create support for desirable programs and policies.

As volumes of political research points out, it is not easy (nor even always possible) to encourage people to come together on an issue. However the right kind of research can uncover the overall counters of public thinking and identify the values that can mobilize opinion, such as “fairness” or “progress.” The right kind of research can generate and test metaphors necessary to explain key issues the public needs to know to make decisions. Thus, a successful campaign is based around the ideas that bring people together, rather than continue to split them into ever smaller groups.

But how do these larger frames work to bridge differences among micro-groups? One explanation is that they tap into shared cognitive constructs, the things we call cultural models. These are the understandings that are shared across a group that explain the common effects of the messages in our experiments and research. Two of our cognitive anthropologists, Nat Kendall-Taylor and Eric Lindland, explained this approach more in depth in a previous post on the FrameBlog.

Unfortunately, it seems that micro-targeting may be here to stay, at least for awhile. In 2008, many attributed Obama’s election win to his ability to tap into larger values of hope and optimism that cut across demographic lines. In 2012, however, it seems that his campaign team is also getting caught up in the micro-targeting trend.

For experts and advocates in the non-profit world who communicate on social issues, we strongly caution against this trend. While political candidates may have the luxury to spend resources on micro-targeting, we know that our advocates need to have compelling messages that are researched and proven to work with the entire populace. For this, we need to focus on the values that unite us all.


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