After a $6 billion election, politicos say data mining is the wave of the future
Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College in Henniker, was searching YouTube for a Sesame Street video for his daughter when an ad by the Obama campaign saying Mitt Romney wanted to end all funding for Big Bird (and PBS) popped up.
The web video played in the midst of what the Center for Responsive Politics projected would be a $6 billion campaign, and it was a stand-out moment, Lesperance said.
“There’s definitely a point where people have just had enough,” Lesperance said.
And there has been more than enough in 2012, and the Big Bird ad that found Lesperance as he was looking for a Sesame Street clip may be a sign of the “microtargeting” that advertisers and political operatives say is the likely tactic of the future.
The 2010 Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court opened the floodgates for unlimited spending on campaign advertisements, and this year’s spending broke historic records, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.
The super-PACs that arose from the court decision spent about $631 million this year at incredible rates – about $19 million was spent per week on political advertising for or against a presidential candidate nationwide in September, then $33 million per week in early October and finally $70 million per week in late October, according to the same group.
New Hampshire, a swing state, saw more than its fair share of ads – outside groups spent $10.6 million on the state’s 1st and 2nd Congressional District races, according to records with the Federal Election Commission. By mid-October, the Live Free PAC, which
is funded by the Republican Governors Association, spent $5.8 million on the governor’s race.
WMUR General Manager Jeff Bartlett said his station ran a record-setting 20,000 ads in 2012, about 4,000 more than it aired in 2008, which was also a record-breaking year.
“It all starts to look like political porn,” said Pat Griffin, a longtime advertising executive who most recently conceived and executed ads for Charlie Bass’s re-election bid.
“After a while you look at this stuff, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, how much do we expect voters to take?’ ” Griffin said.
The spending’s not going to decrease anytime soon, Lesperance said.
“You don’t want to unilaterally disarm, especially when it’s working for you,” Lesperance said. But buying so much air time creates a new problem for advertising executives: cutting through the clutter.
To be sure, some TV ads still managed to.
Take, for example, Democratic ads targeting Republican gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne as too conservative on social issues, ads he decried in his election night concession speech.
“I think the video of Ovide Lamontagne saying he was going to be radically different from John Lynch (stood out),” said Jim Demers, one of President Obama’s campaign state co-chairs. So, too, did the surreptitiously recorded video of Mitt Romney talking about the 47 percent of the country that didn’t pay an income tax.
“Any time you can use your opponent in an ad speaking, it has a more powerful effect,” Demers said.
That may be why Griffin’s ad featuring a dead-ringer for Annie Kuster, the Hopkinton Democrat who unseated Bass, tap dancing and the candidate herself saying “F-him” about a Bass staffer, may have stood out so much.
But clever ads aren’t enough, and advertisers are learning ever-savvier ways to combine microtargeting with aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts.
They are tactics that are now pretty standard in marketing, but they are nonetheless “Orwellian,” Griffin said.
“Those of us who’ve read 1984 look at this and say, ‘This is unbelievable,’ ” Griffin said.
Last week, after the general election, University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala walked into his American Government class and asked his 55 or so students how many had been “personally contacted” in some way by the Obama campaign on Election Day.
“Just about everybody raised their hand,” Scala said.
Lesperance said his students get “really upset” when they see candidates’ ads show up in their Facebook feeds.
“I go back and ask them, ‘Did you like that particular candidate’s page?’ ” he said. They say they do, and that they then read the candidate’s positions. Lesperance said he has to tell them, “Well, you’ve done exactly what they were hoping you’d do.”
That kind of interaction is critical, Griffin said, because the days of one-way advertising are gone.
“We used to have event television,” he said. “We would sit down during prime-time and we would watch TV.”
“Today, when you look at a working mom or dad, you see people who are cooking dinner, helping their kids with their homework, doing business and watching the news in the background – if they’re watching at all.”
Between public records like voter lists, the private records vendors sell to campaigns and the footprint that voters themselves leave when the “check into” a restaurant on FourSquare or announce they love a coffee shop on Twitter, advertisers have more tools than ever to convince someone to vote a certain way.
“What does impress me, and scared me a little bit, was how precise we can get today in tailoring the message in delivery,” said Tom Rath, a Republican who served as a senior adviser to the Romney campaign.
“We know what television shows you watch, what cars you drive,” Rath said.
And they are not afraid to use it.
Take a massive mailing Moveon.org sent to swing-state voters in the weeks before the election.
“Our democracy works best when ‘everyone’ is a voter – including you,” the mailer said. It featured photos of smiling children and included a chart comparing how often the recipient had voted with the other people in the neighborhood.
Scala was one of the 12 million people nationwide who received one.
“You look at mail pieces and gosh they’re a dime a dozen,” Scala said.
But not this one. “If you see something with your name and saying ‘Your Voter Report Card,’ you’ll look at that,” he said.
He was raking leaves the weekend before the election when an older man with the Obama campaign approached him looking for a certain voter.
When Scala, who lives in Manchester, told the canvasser that the sought-after person didn’t live in the house anymore, the Obama canvasser was undeterred.
“He gave me a three to five minute explanation of why he was going to vote for Obama,” Scala said. All told, he said, six Obama canvassers came to his house this year. He and his wife met only one from the Romney campaign.
And human contact matters, operatives said.
“We can talk about the ads and the mail and everything else but the personal contact of the candidates is still significant,” Demers said. “New Hampshire’s small enough where the candidates still have to get out and shake hands and ask for votes. It’s not like California.”
And when the candidates themselves can’t, it matters that their surrogates do.
“I am a fan of what they called door knocks and bell rings,” Rath said. “And I think that impresses me when I see one of those things that they stick over the door, ‘We’re sorry we missed you.’ ”
“I respect that,” Rath said.
In the end, advertising and social media matters only as long as the message they trumpet is effective, Rath said.
“A powerful, strong, well-thought-out message is going to over-arch all the technology,” he said.
And all the engagement and advertising comes to a head on the first Tuesday in November, when the on-the-ground efforts meet the prior engagement efforts. Last Tuesday, Obama campaign volunteers knocked on about 75,000 doors in New Hampshire, Demers said.
Just in case the people they thought were going to vote for Obama hadn’t gotten to the polls yet.
A story that ran in yesterday's Monitor incorrectly identified where UNH political science professor Dante Scala resides. He lives in Manchester.