MICHIGAN- When Susie Q. Voter leaves Wal-Mart pushing a shopping cart loaded with Dr. Pepper, Ozarka water, and Coors beer toward her Ford Explorer, she is likely to vote Republican. When Jane Doe heads to her Volvo from Whole Foods with a cartload of Pepsi, Evian water, and Budweiser, she will probably vote Democratic.
Farfetched? Maybe, but that's what GOP political consultants who prize data mining, the sophisticated connecting of disparate bits of information, predict-and with pundits and pollsters forecasting a Democratic tsunami, Republicans hope that data mining will give them a 4 percent to 5 percent election bump on Nov. 7. The GOP plans to "microtarget" Susie with advertising, phone calls, and even neighborly pressure, hoping that she will go to the polls-and to ignore Jane, hoping she will stay home.
Matthew Dowd, the Republican co-author of Applebee's America (Simon & Schuster, 2006), says flatly that "lifestyle is what determines political choice." Forget discussions of abstract political principles: "I would rather know where [voters] shop, what they buy, what kind of car they drive, what sports they watch, where the kids go to school." And forget economic class: "Income is no predictor" of voting behavior.
Data mining has long been used by businesses to target likely consumers for their products. But since 2000, Republicans have increasingly used a combination of public information and commercially available data about voters' magazine and media viewing habits, hobbies, and consumer preferences, in order to target particular voters with tailor-made messages. Democrats have been scrambling to catch up.
Dowd and Applebee's America co-authors Ron Fournier and Douglas Sosnik explain how a crucial insight after the 2000 election led to a radical shift in the way Republicans organized their campaigns. In analyzing election returns Dowd realized that it was senseless for campaigns to keep focusing on independent voters, a shrinking part of the electorate. Instead, successful campaigns should target their own "passive and inactive" voters via direct mail, cable TV, and the use of "navigators," neighborhood leaders with credibility among target groups.
Before the 2004 presidential election, data mining still had a reputation as "hocus pocus." As late as April 2004, New York Times reporter Joyce Purnick was skeptically writing, "Oh, to find that one piece of esoterica, or more realistically, that pattern of likes and dislikes, that will predict the politics of millions of voters. A belief in the wizardry of computers, in the idea that they can 'know' enough about everyone in the land to predict each voter's politics, is fueling experiments, hopes, dreams and even many an expert's election-year income in this campaign season."
But in the "battleground states" of 2004 Republicans used data mining to break down voters into 34 subgroups based on their buying habits, family makeup, and interests. Strategists conducted surveys with a subset of these voters to find out which issues made them angry and most motivated them to vote. With that information they designed specific campaign messages to reach each type. Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman crowed after the election, "We were able to develop an exact kind of consumer model that corporate America does every day to predict how people vote-not based on where they live but how they live."
Republican success in 2004 surprised experts and put pressure on Democrats to develop similar programs. In Virginia's 2005 governor's race, Democrat Tim Kaine won in part by locating and micro-targeting likely Democratic voters in traditionally Republican parts of the state. In Texas, Democrat Donna Howard ran for a state House seat that came open in affluent west Austin and handily defeated her Republican opponent by using data mining to target voters most receptive to her appeals.
Overall, though, the national Democratic Party has lagged behind the GOP in micro-targeting, and now some political entrepreneurs are going their own way. Over the past year, for example, Hillary Clinton advisor Harold Ickes has pushed forward his own for-profit data-mining company, Data Warehouse, with funding coming largely from George Soros.
Both parties are seeing that many voters are less interested in platforms than in their sense of gut-level connection with candidates who they think display values such as strength, honesty, or compassion. Campaigns that need to "connect" emotionally with voters look to companies that have been able to connect with consumers-and that's the premise of Applebee's America. The 1,700-restaurant chain regularly conducts surveys to "understand the customer well enough that we can get an expanded number of them to vote for us with their wallets," as one Applebee's executive put it.
How does Applebee's do it? Late last month WORLD drove on I-94 across Michigan, one of next week's key battleground states, from lake to shining lake, stopping at Applebee's restaurants along the way in Battle Creek, Jackson, and Ann Arbor. In each city Applebee's promises to be the neighborhood grill and bar.
At the Battle Creek Applebee's, a series of glass display cases celebrates local high-school sports: Blue and white "Beaver Pride" gear from Harper Creek High School. Yellow and blue Bearcats from Battle Creek Central. Marshall High School's red and black vies with the Lakeview Spartans' purple and white. Penfield's Panther power in green and white opposes the St. Philip's Tigers in red and white.
Photos of birds and animals from the local Kellogg Bird Sanctuary and Binder Park Zoo fill a wall between the bar and restroom. At lunchtime on a cold rainy day the restaurant located in a mall by Sears was only about a third full, and few customers were talking about the hard-fought governor's race between incumbent Jennifer Granholm and Republican Dick DeVos, businessman and son of Amway founder Rich DeVos. Most Michiganders had their eyes fixed on the Detroit Tigers, appearing in the World Series for the first time since 1984.
Both candidates are trying to do what Applebee's does: connect with local sports. DeVos campaign spokesman John Truscott said, "It's impossible to break through with any message. . . . It's all Tigers, all the time. Not that that's a bad thing." The 51-year-old candidate attended the first game with his wife and four children. He handed out campaign T-shirts with the D in DeVos looking like the Old English D on Tiger uniforms. Meanwhile, Granholm declared a statewide "Detroit Tigers Week."
But Michigan's problems run deep. The high-tax, highly unionized state has an unemployment rate 50 percent higher than the national average. Michigan was one of only two states to lose jobs over the past year, and the other one had Hurricane Katrina to blame. Voters show little confidence in either candidate's ability to turn around the state's economy, tied as it is to worldwide trends in automotive sales-so each campaign is saying that the opposing candidate really does not share voters' values.
DeVos has touted his business experience as a necessary first step to turn things around, but Granholm has accused him of moving Amway jobs from Michigan to China. Granholm also ran ads calling DeVos an anti-abortion extremist. For their part, Republicans ran a funny ad, "Granholm II-Lost in Michigan," portraying the incumbent as out of touch with regular folks. The "Lunchbucket Conservative" blog found and posted pictures of a young Jenni Granholm who lived in California and became "San Mateo County Dream Girl of 1977."
The negative tone of the campaign has irritated voters at Applebee's restaurants along the I-94 corridor, but it flows out of a sense that "gut values connections" are more important than party loyalty. Rather than touting policy positions, Democrats proclaim that "Bush lied" about Iraq. The goal is to erode the bonds that developed between the president and the American people following 9/11.
Michigan Republicans have fought back in many ways, including the use of data mining. A 157-page Michigan Micro Tactics handbook allowed the party to understand and precisely target its voters in 2004. Matthew Dowd, who directed the study, now works for DeVos, so it's instructive to see how the GOP began with a list of Michigan's 6 million registered voters-names, ages, addresses, voting histories-enhanced by additional information, such as membership in a pro-life group.
Then the GOP sent that list to Axciom, a data-mining firm that buys information from credit card companies, stores, airlines, and other entities. Axciom, which knew whether a registered voter gambled at casinos, bought golf equipment, or purchased dog food, gave Republicans a profile of each individual showing age, marital status, number of children, and so forth, along with information about consumption (home owner or renter, sports car or SUV owner), lifestyle (biker, snowmobiler), and religious interest.
Republicans then called 5,000 people from the Axciom list and learned about their political attitudes: Bush or Kerry? Pro-life or pro-abort? Concerned about taxes, pornography, school choice, gay marriage? Based on those responses analysts then grouped all 6 million Michigan voters into segments such as "Terrorism Moderates," and became able to predict the likelihood of those within a particular segment voting Republican-particularly if they received a motivating call from a pro-Bush "navigator."
Although this year's playbook is still secret, it appears that micro-targeting has become even more precise in the last two years. For example, the Los Angeles Times recently reported that the Michigan GOP is going to work on the state's snowmobilers, contacting them in numerous ways and "suggesting that Democrats' environmental views stood in the way of greater opportunities for snowmobiling." The Times then quoted a Democratic strategist who admitted that his party trailed in the data-mining race: "We can't do snowmobilers."
But there are limitations. In the Jackson Applebee's a young woman having lunch said she wasn't paying much attention to politics but she was paying attention to the Tigers. The Michigan GOP website brags that the party has already made 2 million phone calls, but this young woman's reliance on a cell phone may give her immunity from those. Maybe if the GOP finds that she watches the History Channel, has an eBay account, and attended a Monster truck show-all of which make her likely to lean Republican-a "navigator" will find a way to contact her.
An even bigger limitation: Old-time political pros are right to say that there's no substitute for a strong candidate. DeVos doesn't have the speaking ability of his father and during debates has appeared awkward, often stumbling for the right word. Jennifer Granholm is clearly more comfortable in front of the cameras. She's a prettier, more feminine Hillary Clinton.
The other race may also make a difference: Although incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow in October appeared to have a solid lead over Republican challenger Mike Bouchard, Pam Sherstad of Right to Life of Michigan said pro-lifers would be motivated to vote: "We have a unique opportunity to elect a pro-life governor and a pro-life senator."
The presence on the ballot of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, an anti-affirmative-action amendment championed by Ward Connerly, could also propel to polling places those who feel strongly about that issue.
At the Applebee's in Ann Arbor, display cases tout the Huron "River Rats," the Fr. Gabriel Richard "Fighting Irish," and the Pioneer High School "Purple Reign." Located in a business park near the Toyota Tech Center, the restaurant is a lunchtime hangout for auto engineers. They know the local economy is suffering along with the Big Three automakers, but Toyota's fortunes are soaring. The differing fortunes of the car companies are evidence of the global pressures on Michigan's economy.
By Nov. 7 the warm fuzzies of the World Series will have dissipated, and the Michigan decision just may come down to who has the best plan to make Michigan products more competitive, and who wants to give unborn children the eventual opportunity to compete. But it might also depend on the ability of some software wizards and number crunchers to mine bits of consumer data. Similar influences might determine the results of contests throughout the entire nation.