Cover Story: The Direct Marketing Election
"Some people are just big believers in it because they are making money off it, or they really think it works," Hill says. "But I know some people who think it doesn't work, such as John McCain," the former Republican presidential candidate and Arizona senator. "He thought it was a waste of money."
To Hill, the "jury is still out" on the effectiveness of microtargeting.
"It's not a one-size-fits-all—it doesn't work for every campaign or every circumstance," he says. "For it to work, a campaign has to have an independent database, such as BMW owners or gun magazine subscribers. But finding a list that matches up political attitudes that makes some sense can be challenging."
Instead of targeting individuals, Hill and his team identify specific clusters of voters, or "super voters" who vote Republican in every election. The firm also identifies issues important to either men or women, or to either young people or middle-agers. The intent is to help campaigns identify broader categories of targeted messages for TV ads, radio and mass mailings.
John Morgan, president of Applied Research Coordinates, a Republican demographics firm in Fairfax, Va., says that in some ways, microtargeting is a "sham."
"Their polling size is usually too small," Morgan says. "They might only poll 1,000 or 2,000 people in a state, and that is not a big enough sample. I don't like microtargeting, but it's better than no targeting at all."
Morgan prefers a more traditional targeting method—"precinct targeting," the practice of finding specific precincts within swing states that candidates have to target in order to win that state. He's been employing this method since he worked with Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential campaign.
"Target precincts could be 48 percent to 49 percent GOP, or they could be as low as 38 percent, depending on the strategy," he says. However, groups within those precincts often vote and act in blocks by social factors, such as their church affiliation. So Morgan says, "If their next door neighbor is a blue collar Catholic Democrat, then we need a targeted message" to sway both neighbors.