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If you drive a Chevrolet Suburban, Dick DeVos wants to sell you something. But the longtime Amway Corp. executive isn't hawking tires or sound systems. He's selling himself.
DeVos is a conservative Republican running for governor in Michigan, and he figures that if you're the typical Chevy Suburban driver -- a middle-income parent who lives outside the city -- you might just be his kind of voter. DeVos is using some of the same marketing and persuasion techniques used for decades by American businesses in an attempt to locate potential customers for his political campaign.
In the new world of "corporate affinity" politics, more and more campaigns are working with commercial data-mining firms to build databases of voters' consumer preferences, hobbies, and media viewing habits. When cross-indexed against publicly available voter information, campaigns can target, with astonishing reliability, both potential supporters and key swing-voter blocs. Candidates then reach out to the voters they have identified via personal contacts, phone calls, direct mail, e-mail, or Internet ads that pop up when the voter visits certain Web sites.
This fall, DeVos, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and about half a dozen other statewide candidates hope to benefit from the lessons learned by American companies.
Consumer data allow political campaigns to identify "the political and social DNA of a person," says Ron Fournier, editor-in-chief of Hotsoup.com, a bipartisan political Web site, and co-author of the book Applebee's America: How Successful Political, Business, and Religious Leaders Connect with the New American Community. The sliced-and-diced data allow campaigns "to control the message and identify which issue is most likely to be the most compelling for each household at every life stage," says Josh Herman, director of product innovation at Arkansas-based Acxiom Corp. (ACXM), the data company used most often by campaigns from both parties. For the DeVos campaign, the result is "a matrix to hit our most likely voters," says Communications Director John Truscott.
Matthew Dowd, chief strategist for President George W. Bush's 2004 campaign, says the ascendancy of corporate-affinity politics is the culmination of a profound change in the way people reach political decisions. Party loyalties are waning. Voters are more likely to share "gut values" that result in product loyalty. "Today, you have to understand the lifestyle choices they make, what products they buy, where they choose to live," Dowd says, "or you're going to miss the boat."
Consumer data and political polling offer a glimpse into consumers' psyches. Applebee's restaurant patrons tend to be middle class residents of the heartland who value family, community, and consistency. A Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) shopper is likely to be socially conservative, pro-gun, and exurban or rural, while a Bloomingdale's (FD) or Neiman Marcus customer is probably upscale, urban, and socially liberal. A Target (TGT) regular is an independent-minded, style-conscious, cost-conscious suburbanite. That makes Target customers "the sort of voters who are at play in swing states," says Steven E. Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College.
KNITTERS LIKE BILL
Bush adviser Dowd says lifestyle targeting allows campaigns to identify supporters with 90% reliability, compared with under 60% for old-style targeting based on factors such as geography or ethnicity. That's why campaigns will sometimes pay more than $100,000 for that kind of information and tens of thousands more to massage and update the data. Rounding out the hefty budget is a million dollars or more to reach the micro-targeted audience.
Companies have used data mining for years to study the personal traits of their most loyal customers and to develop strategies to expand their reach. But it's relatively new to politics. In 1996 President Bill Clinton's reelection strategists noticed that basketball fans, knitters, and daytime talk-show viewers were supporters, while fans of country music, college football, and the TV comedy hit Friends favored Republican Bob Dole. But the campaign did little with the data other than target TV programs for ad buys. In the intervening years, Republicans recognized the benefits of adapting costly business models, while "Democrats have been behind the curve," says former Clinton political director Douglas B. Sosnik.
In 2004, the Bush campaign used consumer data to target both core supporters and swing voters with a higher degree of accuracy than had ever been achieved. Dowd's plan helped Bush turn out the Republican base in record numbers while besting Democrat John Kerry among coveted swing blocs such as blue-collar men and suburban women.
Just last year, Governor Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.) used consumer data to identify key swing voters and tailor his faith-and-family message to attract suburban Starbucks (SBUX) customers and exurban Wal-Mart shoppers alike. Many of those voters lived in the state's rapidly growing exurbs. In 2004, George Bush outpolled Kerry by nearly 2 to 1 among white, suburban, churchgoing mothers in Virginia. But Democrat Kaine, a former missionary, targeted those voters with a values-laden message that also emphasized education and transportation. That helped him win not only the Target swing voters but also many socially conservative customers of Applebee's and Wal-Mart. On Election Day, Kaine swept the suburbs, edged Republican Jerry W. Kilgore on the home turf of religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, and captured an unprecedented 47% of the votes of white, churchgoing mothers -- normally a very Republican voting bloc.
Campaign manager Mike Henry says the consumer data allowed the Virginian "to be very efficient with time and resources. It allowed us with pinpoint accuracy to reach out and touch people." Henry says Kaine crafted a platform that appealed to these persuadable voters and allowed him to communicate with individual voters about issues that concern them, such as suburban sprawl.
Already, potential 2008 Presidential candidates like Democrats Mark Warner and Wesley K. Clark and Republican John McCain are studying the technique. Pete Brodnitz, campaign pollster for Kaine, said the Virginian's use of consumer data was "version 1.0" for the political world. By 2008, "I assume every [Presidential] campaign will have some kind of modeling. It has matured that much."
One businessman wonders what has taken so long. "It's much the same thing, whether you're looking to influence a person to come to Applebee's or to vote," says Lloyd L. Hill, board chairman of Applebee's. "I don't know how anybody's going to be successful in the future without using data mining."
By Richard S. Dunham