Targeting Voters in Congressional Elections
Strategies and methods used in political campaigning and for communicating with constituents have evolved from the days when most Americans still received the news from the morning paper. Radio, television, and the Internet have transformed the way the public accesses information and subsequently how political campaigns operate. Congressional candidates have increasingly shifted their reliance on “shoe leather” campaigns that focused more on direct contact with constituents, to operations centered on political consultants, television and radio advertising, the Internet, direct mailings, and micro targeting to reach sympathetic possible voters. The number of potential voters in each Congressional district has ballooned since Article I Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution declared that “The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand…” After the results of the 2010 U.S. Census, the 435 members of the House now represent approximately 710,767 citizens on average.
Due to the increasing size of the population within a Congressional district and a nation deeply divided politically, candidates must constantly find new ways to target supportive voters in order to be successful in a Congressional election. Candidates from both major parties rely on “get out the vote” drives to ensure that their base is registered and motivated to vote on Election Day. With the help of volunteers and staff, successful campaigns dispatch campaign workers to conduct door-to-door canvassing in neighborhoods to request support for a candidate and to encourage people to vote. Phone banks are also used to place calls to registered party members who have supported the candidate or the party in past elections. Independent, or swing voters may also be targeted by a campaign, particularly if a hot-button issue may provide the candidate with crucial support necessary for victory in a closely contested Congressional race. Personal messages from candidates issued by press release, direct mailings, or by face-to-face interactions with voters remain effective campaign strategies. Incumbent Congressional candidates enjoy financial and institutional advantages when campaigning and targeting voters, such as the franking privilege, which allows Congress members to transmit mail or other documents to their constituents under their signature without paying postage. Since large amounts of campaign funds are now allocated for television advertising, the electoral benefits of the franking privilege are not to be underestimated when targeting voters.
The increasing popularity of television as an advertising medium in the 20th century shifted campaign strategies away from a more personalized “shoe leather” style campaign to contests that rely heavily on voter mobilization and targeted political television advertisements. Relying on demographic data that tracks the viewing audience of popular television programs, campaigns are able to purposely run their political advertisements during programs with large amounts of likely supportive or independent voters. Television advertising is often the most expensive part of a campaign, but because of the rise in the amount of negative ads purchased by interest groups and opposing candidates, few candidates will risk not spending the resources on television ads that respond to critics or promote a positive image of the candidate. Although the public often complains about the frequency of political ads on television, especially negative ones, research shows that they are effective. Many candidates also direct their attention to specific issues.
Focusing on issues can be a cogent way to attract certain voters. The amount of issue voters, or persons who vote based on issues as opposed to candidates or parties, has increased dramatically over the past 50 years. Although some hot-button issues can be polarizing, candidates who take a firm stance on an issue that resonates with constituents can gain a political advantage. The types of issues that are important to constituents vary widely across Congressional districts. For example, a Congressional district that runs along the coast of Florida will likely focus on issues affecting tourism, while a district in New York City may focus on rent control or public transportation. Incumbents often choose to capitalize on their experience during a campaign by focusing on issues that are directly related to their service on a Congressional committee. Incumbents may also have the benefit of touting legislation that they helped to pass that positively impacts their constituents. The elevated focus on issues has also permitted interest groups to play a more visible role in Congressional races.
Both national parties and interest groups have increased voter mobilization efforts. In more recent elections, interest groups and national parties have combined their personal contacts with data mining and computer technology to create new target lists of voters for campaigns. A technique called micro targeting has become the norm in Congressional campaigns. Micro targeting results when parties, campaigns, or interest groups use direct marketing data mining techniques to target potential sympathetic voters. Once these voters are identified, they are exposed to specifically tailored messages designed to persuade them to vote. Voters can be targeted based on the petitions they sign, college attended, purchasing habits, online activity, or even hobbies. Online data mining techniques that can track the internet browsing history of users allows campaigns to create a digital profile of each person who clicks on a campaign ad. Once information is obtained about the user, a message tailored to appeal to the voter is displayed in an effort to mobilize and persuade. Surveys are also used to target voters on an issue specific to them. For example, a Republican candidate who strongly supports 2nd amendment gun rights, may choose to target members of the National Rifle Association, an interest group with a long history of backing candidates who favor less stringent federal gun regulations. Overall, micro targeting efforts permit parties, campaigns, and interest groups to use their resources more effectively when mobilizing or attempting to attract new voters.
Efforts to target potential voters in Congressional campaigns have grown more sophisticated in recent years. By relying on micro targeting and cooperation with responsive interest groups, parties and candidates use an ever increasing amount of available commercial data on individuals to target voters. Micro targeting has helped to improve the efficiency of television advertising, direct mailings, and automated phone messages used by Congressional campaigns. Moreover, even traditionally effective door-to-door canvassing efforts by campaigns have been improved by the creation of targeted address lists resulting from data mining efforts. Although face-to-face interaction with candidates and campaign volunteers remains highly effective with voters, the large number of citizens in each Congressional district requires campaigns to raise large sums of money and employ a variety of targeting techniques to remain competitive in a Congressional election.