Rove and the Birth of National Microtargeting

When George W. Bush addressed the feverish swath of supporters on November 3, 2004, at the Ronald Reagan Building—just a stone’s throw from the White House—he had many people to thank for his successful re-election. Among them was Karl Rove, who Bush referred to as “the architect.” While Bush was the man of the hour, Rove cemented his legacy as one of the most influential figures in U.S. politics for his tactical use of voter data. Since then, Republicans and Democrats have, for the most part, taken different approaches to the use and management of this data.

When Rove began to carve a path to re-elect George W. Bush, he faced a problem. Bush was winning with the crowd he should have been winning—reliable GOP voters, military supporters and social conservatives—but he was having difficulty breaking through with moderates and swing voters. Rove devised a plan: use a robust voter file enriched with bits of data to identify the traits and idiosyncrasies of individual voters and then craft a message tailored specifically for each of them. For the first time, a presidential candidate would use micro-targeting strategies to build coalitions across the entire country. It worked; and an arms race of sorts, ensued to acquire and implement the best micro-targeting strategies developed between the Republicans and Democrats.

Dem vs. Rep ImageThe two parties diverged on their strategies for collecting and maintaining data, with the Democrats favoring a centralized voter file and the Republicans opting to allow candidates to purchase data from individual providers.

A centralized voter file has its advantages. The most significant advantage being that large campaigns—by using a central file—can organize quickly and efficiently on a national level. However, down-ballot campaigns are often faced with costly drawbacks. First, a lack of competition in price and quality has left many medium or small campaigns hamstrung by high prices and inefficiencies in the data. Second, and more importantly, dual ownership of data often leads to competing visions for the use of data that a campaign has compiled  door by door.

Campaigns seeking a high level of flexibility and creativity in their targeting operations may see better results with an independent data provider. A focus on competitive pricing and enhancements to all portions of the voter file allows for scalable and customizable data operations. While many smaller campaigns face frustration when dealing with a centralized voter file that is seemingly suited for only large campaigns, a competitive data market allows for any candidate to leverage innovative micro-targeting strategies. Since 2008, many local and state campaigns have opted for a more agile platform. Challengers are able to sparse their own voter data, finding fresh ways to communicate with the electorate.

As the historical data mounts and the quality of voter data becomes paramount, savvy campaigns will spend an increasing amount of time in the War Room analyzing data. Unlike Rove, current and future campaigns have real-world examples of a centralized vs. a free market approach to voter data. Which option the campaign decides to pursue may be the single most important decision of the campaign.

Blake Waycaster
Account Manager, National Data
[email protected]

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