Business, Politics, & Society

What Is Voter Targeting? Learn How and Why Political Campaigns Use Microtargeting Techniques

Written by MasterClass

Aug 14, 2019 • 3 min read

Microtargeting is a cutting edge political campaign technique that continues to develop at a rapid pace. Being familiar with microtargeting and understanding how it works is vital for anyone considering a career in politics.



What Is Voter Targeting?

Voter targeting is the name for the process political campaigns use to identify the segments of a voting population they intend to engage for identification, persuasion, and/or mobilization.

Goals for outreach to different targeted voter segments drive strategy and tactics in all areas of a campaign, including messaging and direct voter contact efforts.

How Does Voter Targeting Work?

Voter targeting is built on databases of voter profiles. These profiles vary in complexity and size but are based on data points including:

  • Past voting history
  • Known party affiliation/political leanings
  • Demographic details

Where Did Microtargeting Originate?

Microtargeting as a political tool was developed in the early 2000s. Republican political campaigns were the first to use political microtargeting on a national level during the United States Presidential election of 2004. The technique itself was developed from an existing marketing strategy and business model used by direct marketers.

Political parties have always tried to tailor their political advertising to potential voters based on their specific demographics and political leanings. For instance, voters in Pennsylvania might hear a radio ad tailored to union steelworkers, while voters in California might see a television ad emphasizing immigration reform.

With the rise of big data in the early to mid-2000s, election campaigns were able to tailor their message in a much more precise way for much smaller segments of individual voters. The Republican and Democratic National Committees hired data scientists to build databases filled with all available information on voters stored in individual voter files. These databases were then mined to develop hyper-specific voter profiles and devise messaging that could reach individual voters through door-to-door campaign visits, phone calls, or traditional advertising.

What Does Microtargeting Involve?

Microtargeting is not for the novice politician or small scale local campaign—it’s a sophisticated campaign technique that requires money, resources, and paid professionals. That being said, understanding how microtargeting works and what is involved is important for politicians at every level of government.

  • Microtargeting utilizes various techniques. There are several different statistical techniques that are used in microtargeting. These include regression analysis, segmentation techniques, and neural networks. What techniques you use depend on the personnel you are working with and the technology you have access to.
  • Microtargeting involves building detailed voter profiles. A political campaign will need access to existing voter files to build on during microtargeting. Often, these come from political parties at the state or national level. A campaign can add additional demographic data onto these voter files to flesh out a more detailed profile.
  • Microtargeting continues to evolve. Microtargeting is an evolving technique. Campaigns continually test their data mining operation and make tweaks to ensure that the campaign is running efficiently and effectively.

Why Is Microtargeting Useful?

Microtargeting has many potential uses for a campaign. One of the upsides of building a sophisticated microtargeting operation is the variety of ways a campaign can use that data. The most common uses of microtargeting include:

  • Get out the vote. Microtargeting is enormously useful in driving up voter turnout. Knowing what issues motivate your supporters can go a long way in getting them out to the polls on election day. Learn more about the different types of elections in America here.
  • Persuasion targeting. Microtargeting allows campaigns to develop hyperspecific messaging to persuade undecided voters in ways that were previously impossible.
  • Donor prospecting. Political donations are a huge part of what makes campaigns successful. Data mined through microtargeting can give campaigns insight into supporters who can be solicited for political donations.

Whether you’re looking to get involved in politics or simply want to become a more informed, engaged citizen, knowing the ins and outs of campaign strategizing is paramount to understanding how political campaigns work. In their online class, David Axelrod and Karl Rove, the respective architects of Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s historic election victories, provide valuable insight into how to develop a campaign platform and reach an audience with consistent messaging.

Want to become better engaged with politics and campaigning? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master campaign strategists, like David Axelrod and Karl Rove.