Does Microtargeting Matter? Campaign Contact Strategies and Young Voters

By Laura Sudulich on 10 November 2017

Endres Kyle, Duke University

Kristin J. Kelly, Austin Community College

This a summary of Does Microtargeting Matter? Campaign Contact Strategies and Young Voters. The full article can be accessed here

In recent decades, parties and campaigns have turned to individual-level data to estimate a citizen’s likelihood to both turn out to vote and their likelihood to vote for a certain candidate, in a process called microtargeting. These estimates are used by campaigns to selectively target citizens for voter contact and outreach, allowing campaigns to focus their resources on those individuals whose estimates suggest they are likely to turn out to vote, and ignore individuals who are deemed unlikely to turn out. Prior to the use of “Big Data” to create these estimates, campaigns relied on geographic-based campaign strategies to contact potential voters. Our study investigates the impact of the shift from geographic-based targeting strategies and microtargeting strategies on the composition of the electorate.

 

In particular, we’re interested in whether these new individualized estimates result in some groups in the electorate being systematically excluded from contact due to their estimated propensity of being “unlikely” to turn out. We use Republican National Committee microtargeting data from the 2012 election, and our results suggest that young people (18-29 year olds) are much more likely than older adults to be categorized as “unlikely to turnout” and are therefore less likely to be designated for contact when campaigns rely on microtargeted data. Registered voters of all ages who were predicted to have a low propensity to vote did, in fact, report being contacted at significantly lower rates than individuals estimated as higher-propensity voters.
 

We also perform a series of simulations demonstrating that a larger proportion of young people would have been contacted in the 2012 election had Republican campaigns utilized any number of different geographic targeting strategies. Thus, the shift to individualized microtargeting contact strategies—while rational for campaigns in the short run to better utilize resources—may have the detrimental long-term effect of hurting future Republican prospects in campaigns. Young people have been disproportionately voting for Democratic candidates at the ballot box in recent elections, and this lack of outreach for persuasion and turnout by Republicans as the Millennial and post-Millennial generations replace older generations in the electorate.