Campaigns are based on the wrong data and making the wrong decisions
There is a consistent drumbeat of news, polls, and pundits talking about how people will vote, who they will vote for, and the political positions candidates and their supporters have staked out: “Medicare for All,” “Build the Wall,” “Build Back Better,” and “America First.” But in all the punditry, I don’t hear anyone talking about who these people are outside of how they will vote and their political positions on healthcare, COVID-19, taxes, and the infrastructure of Washington. That’s a mistake. If we would only look at voters outside of voting, we could do a better job not just of convincing them, but of bringing them together.
Almost every voter does laundry. Drinks soda. Drives a car. Has or wants a job. Buys clothes. Goes to the movies, listens to music, watches television. Yet all we talk about is age, gender, ethnicity, education level, and political affiliation. It’s taken ten years for mainstream corporations to wake up to the fact that they should be advertising to individuals with custom, addressable content based on who those individuals are, as reflected in actual behaviors and quantifiable actions, and not based on broad gender, ethnicity or other non-determinative qualities. So why are news and political operations still so far behind?
The answer is simple: because it’s always been done that way, and there’s no incentive to change. The folks running the news channels are driven by ratings in a narrow potential audience, so they couldn’t care less about campaign data operations. And the people running campaigns themselves are driven primarily by revenue considerations that are not dependent on results. Media buyers get paid whether a candidate wins or loses, and so do field operatives, data scientists, and operations managers. For all the talk of passionately supporting and doing anything for the “cause,” too many individuals making decisions are driven by power and a paycheck, not accuracy or efficacy.
Of course, it’s commonplace now to talk about the sophisticated data and targeting operations of national political parties and campaigns. And they do have mounds of data, from a political point of view. They know what issues you care about, who your neighbors are, when you last voted, and what messaging drives your empathy. However, they’re not piecing together voter behavior based on what movies you watch, which detergent you buy, and whether your kid eats apples or carrots for dinner. They should be. The actions you take outside of what you say on the issues are what demonstrate where your real priorities lie—not just what messages you’ll respond to but why.
The reality is that for all the data campaigns have, these folks are generally fishing in the wrong pond. They’re buying the same generic advertising on social media that is riddled with bots and in-transparency, the same display inventory that’s filled with fraud and click farms, and the same “tried and true” hit ‘em once, hit ‘em ten times tactics that’s been used for decades in voter outreach. I’ve listened to endless hours of news coverage, read every data output from FiveThirtyEight and the Upshot, and even consulted with several campaigns. Not once have I heard people talk about the underlying why voters with only a high school education trend to Trump over Biden, or why seniors are responding to the news cycle by heading in the opposite direction. Sure, they get into surface explanations – feeling like one candidate cares more about the everyday American, or another candidate will lower prescription drug prices, but that’s simply not deep enough.
If we could thread the common traits between voters on opposite sides of the aisle, we could engage in thoughtful, deep analysis about why people who share 95% of behaviors and attributes differ on who they will vote for, and then reverse engineer ways to bridge that final gap. Instead of getting our “bases” riled up on the issues, we could win over the middle, and even convert the other side, based on who they are when they’re not in the voting booth.
Voters choose between Tide and Gain. They drink Pepsi or Coca-Cola. They make a dozen brand decisions every day. There’s no reason those decisions shouldn’t inform how and why we target them, leading to greater efficacy and conversion, and quite possibly, saving our Republic in the process.