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National Journal Earth Week 2011 / ENVIRONMENT

Green Groups Know Who They're Talking To

Microtargeting Used to Counter Opponents' Big-Money Campaigning

Sen. Michael Bennet won a close fight with Republican Ken Buck for his seat. (John Moore/Getty Images)

photo of Coral Davenport
April 22, 2011

In the 2012 campaigns, environmental groups want to win big by going small.

When it comes to spending money to influence elections, green groups have always been outspent by their opponents, such as the Chamber of Commerce and fossil fuel groups that lavish millions on TV and radio ads. The balance became even more lopsided after a 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that allowed corporate spending on campaign advertisements. Last fall, the top five biggest-spending environmental groups spent a combined $8 million to support Democratic candidates with pro-environmental records. The top five conservative and pro-industry groups spent a combined $105 million.  

So groups like the League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife have been investing in cutting-edge “microtargeting”—combining demographic and consumer information to home in on likely voters who will be sympathetic to their causes before a campaign worker makes a phone call or knocks on the door.

 

The process was famously pioneered in the 1980s by Republican strategist Karl Rove, who created databases overlaying voter data and census figures to create profiles of likely GOP supporters.

But consultants say that in recent years, smaller, tech-savvy progressive groups, led by environmentalists (and some tea party groups), have taken microtargeting to a new level, by combining census and voter data with thousands of layers of consumer information. It includes the kind of car a likely voter drives, magazines they subscribe to, how often they attend religious services, whether they have hunting or fishing licenses, where they travel—many collected from websites such as Facebook. It's all used to create deeply detailed profiles of individual voters, and approaching each one with a highly tailored message.     

Political consultants say the results are far less visible than TV and radio ads—but may be more effective.  They can certainly give a lot more bang for the buck. They point to a microtargeting, data-profiling and telephone campaign used by the League of Conservation Voters and the strategy firm Winning Connections that targeted environmentally conscious voters in the 2010 Colorado Senate race, one of the closest in the country. Toward the end of the race, LCV invested heavily in microtargeted phone calls—a campaign for which the green groups won a “Pollie,” given this month by the National Association of Political Consultants.

“If you look at the League of Conservation Voters, they have 60,000 supporters in Colorado. [Sen. Michael] Bennet won by [31,000]. You can argue he wouldn’t have won without those phone calls,” said Angela McMillan, executive director of the association.

Navin Nayak, the LCV’s senior vice president for campaigns, described how the process works: Using a set of 1,000 data points, the group created a data model that determines whether and how likely a voter is to care about environmental issues.

As the organization gathers data about voters, it plugs them into the model, which grades the voters’ environmental sympathies on a scale of 1 to 100. Likely voters with a score of over 70 get a phone call.

The group then hired Winning Connections to write personalized scripts to reach out to the microtargets. The scripts are specific to issue, region, and, especially, microtargeted voter. Company president John Jameson said his firm wrote about 50 of the scripts during the 2010 campaigns.  

“Even if we’re making a call about an environmental issue, we can refine it down to which environmental issue this person cares about most, and that’s what the script will talk about,” he said. 

They also employ heavily researched and focus-grouped psychological techniques, Jameson said.

Among them: the idea of “priming,” borrowed from a technique athletes use to see a game before it starts. “We get them to visualize going to vote like tennis players visualize a match.`Imagine taking an action in the future. How do you think you will get to the polls? Will you walk or take a subway? Go alone or with your partner? Before work or at the end of the day?' ”

Another one is “norm perception”, Jameson said. “People like to do what others in their demographic are doing. What is the norm? We want to create the norm. We might say, 'Young women in their 20s are voting on this right now, and you need to be a part of it.' "

Green groups say they expect microtargeting to be a pivotal in the 2012 campaigns—especially in Senate races.

“In a lot of the states which are most likely to be swing states, there are a lot environmental voters—New Mexico, Colorado, Florida. Ohio—you have to pick them off more, but it has pockets. Virginia, parts of North Carolina—North Carolina is not a state where I would see enivronmental  groups spending on media, but there are folks you can pick off [with phone calls]—and that’s who we’re looking for, the swing voters.”

Meanwhile, the technique is gaining in popularity across the political spectrum. Strategists say tea party strategists such as Jay Mount of Arizona-based MDF Associates are using effective microtargeting and psychologically focus-grouped phone calls to bring in contributions.

“They can’t afford to do a bunch of broadcast ads … but they’re doing refined, microtargeting, down to the smallest grain,” said McMillan. “They’re real innovators in how to use information to target people. It’s very elegant, very refined.”

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