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Data-driven campaigning helps politicians speak with forked tongues

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Because turnout among their key voter groups is lower in non-presidential election years, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is spending $60 million to employ the 2012 Obama campaign mechanism on state levels to help embattled incumbents, an April 19 Washington Post report says. Big shares of the pro-Obama demographic groups who turned out en masse in the 2008 presidential election sat out the 2010 congressional one, and the DSCC wants to keep history from repeating itself.

Where have all the voters gone?

As in 2008 and 2012, the Democrats are relying on turnout from under-30, African-American, Hispanic female and single voters to make the difference between victory and defeat this year. But if history is any guide, they'll be fighting an uphill battle.

Under-30 voter turnout, for example, fell by 27 percent from 2008 to 2010 and failed to recover completely in 2012. African-American turnout fell by 21 percent, Hispanic by 19 percent, women by 20 percent, single women by 22 percent, and single men by 18 percent. While there was dropoff in Republican demographic groups as well, it was smaller.

"[T]he core of the Democratic coalition is made up of many people who turn out to vote only in presidential elections," writes Dan Balz in the Post, but "[t]he Republican coalition – older and whiter – suffers less from midterm falloff." And this year, "Republicans appear more motivated, spurred by their opposition to the Affordable Care Act," he adds.

A blast from the past

As a result, the DSCC is trying to adapt the mechanism of the 2012 presidential campaign – which gathered and correlated tons of data about potential voters, then used that to reach out to their social media connections – to reelecting senators running this year in states that went heavily Republican in 2010 and 2012.

"Democrats are banking on the belief that they can better identify potential supporters, motivate them and get them to the polls — in essence, reshape the midterm electorate to make it look more like the electorate in a presidential year. To try to do so, they will for the first time fully employ the sophisticated tools and techniques used in Obama’s presidential campaigns to aid Senate and some House candidates," the Post explained.

These tools and techniques include gathering data on each potential voter and estimating by computer model how likely, on a 1-100 scale, each voter is to support a specific candidate, how likely each is to vote and how open each would be to persuasion. People with high scores on support but low scores on probable turnout are key targets. They'll receive digital messaging aimed specifically at their demographic groups and encouraged to post them to an indexed list of their Facebook friends to help persuade their friends through a technique called "targeted sharing."

Recent presidential messages give a good indication of what those customized messages might be:

Obama hopes to stir his base to action and in the past two weeks has been trying to push all the buttons. He invoked the slaying of civil rights workers in the 1960s to implore a largely African American audience in New York to take advantage of their right to vote. At the White House a few days before that, he pushed the issue of pay equity for women. Around the country, he and other Democrats have seized on raising the minimum wage to draw a contrast with Republicans. He chastised House Republicans in a statement this past week for not moving on immigration reform.

Invisible media conceal conflicting messages

Paul Mirengoff, writing at the conservative Powerline blog, says this approach has a good chance of backfiring, largely because what makes Democratic Senate candidates more attractive than the president to local voters because they're seen as more moderate, and "[t]he rhetoric that will fire up African-Americans, Hispanics, and feminists may undercut attempts by Democratic senatorial candidates in these states to maintain that moderate image," he posts.

But this view represents a big misunderstanding of the nature of media.

Not all advertising and marketing media are equally visible. Mass media – print, radio television – are visible to everyone; that's what makes them mass media. But other media, both traditional and digital, are visible only to their intended audiences. Direct mail, for example, is visible only to its recipients. Same for email blasts, text messages and to a lesser extent Facebook posts and Twitter tweets.

So all those moderate local voters Mirengoff writes about will never see those shrill partisan emails and other messages sent exclusively to previous young, Black, female and single 2012 Obama supporters.

Thanks to computer technology, politicians can now talk simultaneously out of both sides of their mouths – and no one outside their campaign will be the wiser.

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