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Targeted campaigning: A cautionary Q&A with Tom Horner

On the increasing prevalence of targeting: “I think at a minimum it is worrisome to the future of good governance and potentially dangerous to democracy.”

Tom Horner
Tom Horner

Near the end of a panel on campaign finance I participated in back in the dog days of summer, erstwhile gubernatorial candidate Tom Horner made an offhand remark that the increasingly sophisticated practice of voter targeting had as much potential to change politics as big money.

A policy wonk wishing to color a reporter’s perspective could not have cast a more effective spell. For the rest of the campaign season, I could scarcely launch a web browser, turn on the TV or attend a political news events without seeing the practice Horner referred to. The campaign to defeat the marriage amendment successfully employed some of the tactics, for instance.

And, in the days since the election, one can hardly avoid the stories about the role voter targeting played in delivering both of Barack Obama’s wins.

On election day, Horner took time to revisit his concerns with MinnPost. An edited transcript of that interview follows:

MinnPost: So I wonder if maybe we could start by you describing what kinds of efforts to target voters are being used?

Tom Horner: There are several different levels of voter targeting. One is simply to identify who leans Republican or Democrat or some other party or where they fall on the ideological spectrum and go after them just on the basis of their voting history, their party participation history.

Then you start reaching down into the next level of sophistication where you start to bring some more criteria to the table. So for example, a lot of people now will see on their online searches that an ad for a candidate running for a local office in their area is starting to show up on all of the websites they go to. Well, the powers that be have identified you as a person living in the district who’s an active voter and so they’re going to target you with ads, not always and in fact not often, specific to your ideology. It’s more tied to your geography and your political participation.

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Then you get into increasingly sophisticated layers of targeting and micro-targeting where organizations are using technology to cross-tabulate these massive databases that track a person’s history on the web, consumer history, the person’s spending habits, what they buy, do they shop at luxury stores or low-end stores.

Taking all of this data that are available from retailers, from online usage, from credit cards and other financial sources and cross-tabbing it with political information. Is the person a frequent voter? Is the person a contributor? Does the person lean left or right? And finally, cross-tabbing it again with what are the really important issues to this person?

And coming up with a very sophisticated profile that says, “Not only is this person more likely to vote for candidate A, but here’s how you can build on that predilection and make it even a stronger affiliation by targeting these issues, by talking to the person in this language around these topics and really build that relationship.”

It gives the candidate an ability to marshal resources in an incredibly effective way. Now I can go after a voter who either I know already is for me and reinforce that, or I can go after a voter who should be for me because I’m the right candidate on the issues that voter cares most about.

That voter just needs to know that I care most about it and so now I can target that voter and use my resources to send that person 10, 15, 20, 50 different messages. That might be target ads online, it might be direct mailers. It might even be TV advertising on specific shows that are more likely to draw this person as a viewer.

MP: I’ve heard you talk about the increasing prevalence of targeting as something that could be dangerous.

TH: I think at a minimum it is worrisome to the future of good governance and potentially dangerous to democracy. And I say that because in the past candidates had to appeal to a broad swath of voters. They had to stake out positions and then sell those positions to enough voters to win at least a plurality and in a two-person race, a majority.

That by definition caused a candidate to find solutions that a large number of people would support and embrace. Almost by definition it required the candidate to be open to compromise, to be open to looking at more centrist positions or to make the commitment to really go out and use a campaign to create a mandate, to sell an innovative solution.

So the old-style of politics I don’t think created bad solutions or one-size-fit-all solutions. Quite the contrary, I think that when campaigns were in part exercises to build mandates it allowed candidates to be innovative, to go out and to build support for those solutions.

Now what’s happening is a candidate can simply ignore large groups of voters. The candidate can say, “Well, even in Minnesota, a state with a high voter turnout, I know that these 20, 25, maybe 30 percent of the eligible voters aren’t even going to show up. I’m not going to pay any attention to them at all. Now I need half of the remaining 70 percent and in order to do that, I have the opportunity to go in and with technology, and even more so now with the enormous amounts of money flowing into politics, I have the resources and the tools to identify those voters I need and speak to them about very narrow issues.”

So if I’m running a national campaign, for example, I don’t have to talk about climate change, whether I’m for it or against it. I don’t even have to raise that issue because what I can say to a single voter is, “Look, I know that climate change is just too tough of an issue to grapple with. What I want to talk to you about is how we’re going to fix the potholes in front of your house.”

Well, as a consequence we get voters invested in very narrow issues and meanwhile, we ignore the really important issues. So you have that problem. The second problem is that there’s such a facility with which candidates now can make myth reality. They can create facts out of nonsense.

Some of that, again, is just the volume of money. If you just say it loudly enough and persistently enough it becomes fact. But an increasingly larger part of it is, again, I can go to voters and I can play to their biases and prejudices and the sentiments that they already hold to say, “This is what my opponent is doing and here is why that’s going to hurt you.”

And I can tap into those fears and make those fears reality, again, in a way that not only distorts the issues but makes it virtually impossible for the winning candidate to effectively govern. And so we now have made political campaigns only about winning.

There was a time, believe it or not, where campaigns were always about winning but also about how you govern after you win. We’ve lost that important part because of this narrow targeting and this narrow messaging.  

MP: Do you see a nexus between this and gridlock at the state and national levels?

TH: Yes, because if all I care about is winning and if all I care about is winning on my narrow ideological terms, then I have no incentive and no need to compromise, to find one step in the journey that I can take with somebody on an issue where maybe there’s some disagreement, but if we looked enough, there’s probably some agreement.

I don’t have to find that agreement anymore. I know that I can go back to my voters. I can sell them on what I did not only was right but it was the only right answer. It was the only honorable thing to do. So I think it reinforces a much-harder-line position.

Now to be sure, there are other factors. I think the erosion of mainstream media and other institutions, certainly I think the way in which legislative and other political district boundaries are drawn, contributes to the gridlock. Certainly a lot of the new communications technologies contribute to the gridlock.

So there are a lot of reasons. But I think this micro-targeting is the one that really is increasingly locking not just our political leaders into unmovable positions, but locking voters into both unmovable and untenable positions. 

MP: Does this explain why media fact-checks of messaging campaigns seem so ineffectual? We keep hearing the same messages even after they’re debunked repeatedly.

TH: It’s one of the reasons. Now there are other reasons, not least of which is that there just aren’t enough readers or viewers demanding fact checks and simply diminishing numbers of people who are even looking at them or even exposed to them. You can’t ignore that reality.

And secondly there is the overwhelming noise that comes from repeated advertising and direct mail and other outreach against a single article or a single news broadcast. There’s just that unequivalent kind of noise that drowns out the fact check.

But yes, I do think that a significant part of it is that I can take whatever I say and I can go to people who already are predisposed to believe it and say, “Now you believe it. Now this is the truth.” And it reinforces what you already believe, so of course it must be the truth.

There are issues that go beyond the political use of all of this data about privacy and who should own information about what I do and what I buy and what my reading habits are. Do I own it or does my credit-card company own it? Well right now, we pretty much have said the credit-card company owns it.

We ought to start addressing some of those kinds of issues as a society, not just out of political concerns. And yet we tend to completely ignore those kinds of issues because they’re tough to grapple with. But beyond that, it also raises the question of, “OK. Well so what? So what’s the antidote?” Because the enormous amounts of money coming into politics makes it possible to fund these activities and so it’s only going to get more nefarious and more sophisticated and more dominant.

So if we’re not going to control access to the information — and we don’t seem to be able or willing to do that — then how do you counter the impact of money? With the Supreme Court having made its decision, short of a constitutional amendment, it’s pretty hard to control the flow of money.

As a society that ought to be concerned about the future of governance, I think we do need to start looking seriously about how do we empower the individual voter? Because right now we’ve empowered campaigns, we’ve empowered politicians, we’ve empowered to some extent interest groups. How do we empower the voter?

I say let’s give that voter’s vote more power. Let’s go to ranked-choice voting and say to the voter, “You don’t have to do an all or nothing. You can say, I really like candidate A but if candidate A doesn’t win, I want candidate B.” And now I think you encourage candidates to take more thoughtful, respectful and ideally broader positions on issues.

I think we need to deal more thoughtfully with public financing of campaigns, not that we’re going to be able to limit the spending for those candidates who choose to ignore public funding, but I think we can at least say to that person sitting out there who says, “I don’t have access to $10 million but I really have some good ideas. I think I have a base of support.” If there is adequate public funding along with reforms like ranked-choice voting, now a candidacy becomes more viable.

And then thirdly to rethink completely how we do the redistricting and take it out of the hands of the politicians who benefit most from inappropriate boundaries being drawn.