Dick Morris: Political Technology Is Unraveling - The Limits of Targeting


In modern politics, the overwhelming emphasis in campaigns is on targeting voters through data mining. The revolution, begun by Cambridge Analytica and a network of firms that came to advise the Trump campaign, has proceeded to the point where targeting is seen as more important than messaging.

Find out who the voter is, the theory goes, and then, instead of broadcasting your message to the world, “narrowcast” your message, aiming it with precision at each individual voter. (Google assures us that the word “narrowcasting” was coined by computer scientist and public broadcasting advocate J. C. R. Licklider in 1967. But it entered political usage through the work of media guru Tony Schwartz).

Targeting uses millions of publicly — and legally — available bits of data about each of us that catalogs our consumer preferences, habits, priorities and lifestyle choices — what car we drive, where we live, our pets, what food we eat, what films we see, what we watch on television, etc.

The data firms then conduct conventional political survey research, with very large sample sizes, to see how each of these non-political consumer preferences correlates with their political behavior. Do Toyota Hybrid owners tend to be liberal? Are dog owners conservative? And how about aficionados of the TV show “Law and Order”?

By overlaying the political data onto the consumer data, the campaigns can target swing voters and understand the messages that will work.

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Modern campaigns spend huge amounts of time and money on targeting, so much so that they often forget to do the rest of the job and do not develop messages to reach their carefully selected targets.

They spend so much time and money building the missile that they forget about making the warhead.

Typically, after analyzing massive amounts of data, they will find that a given voter is focused on the economy and jobs. But, having done that, they aim a “jobs” ad at him, the same ad they use on millions of others. There is no customization of the ads to take account of the massive differences in personality and background their research has unearthed. If you’re type A or type B or male or female, or unmarried with kids, you get the same jobs ad. Just like olden times.

Modern campaign operatives are so immersed in the data that they have not given adequate thought to how to persuade the voters they target.

As a result, persuasion has slipped far below motivation in the hierarchy of campaign goals. Get your vote out and don’t worry as much about persuading the swing voter.

This shift in strategy underscores how rapidly our politics has become a turnout duel between two static blocks of voters entrenched in their own ideology. As in World War I, the trench warfare has eclipsed a war of movement where persuasion is possible and voter groups can be lured across party lines.

The technology has reinforced the static, fixed battlefield of today’s politics. It assumes that turnout is the key and that the goal of targeting is to find the voter who agrees with you but needs to be motivated to go on Election Day.

But these assumptions are likely becoming obsolete as you read this column. How many millions of Americans were turned off Trump in 2016 or fixated on the collusion narrative who are now up for grabs? As Trump’s accomplishments mount and his economic policies are obviously working, the collusion charges are disproven, and the Democratic field moves massively left, these voters are now becoming highly persuadable. The ice is breaking. It’s time that our consultants change their priorities and adjust to the new landscape.

Put away your metrics and data points and figure out how to persuade people, in English (or Spanish) to vote for the Republicans. Speak language, not just data.

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Treat the voters as intelligent people who can be persuaded by arguments and information, not just as automatons who need to be dragged out to vote.

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Dick Morris is a former adviser to President Bill Clinton as well as a political author, pollster and consultant. His most recent book, "50 Shades of Politics," was written with his wife, Eileen McGann.