Campaign Microtargeting, Part II: Eitan Hersh’s “Hacking the Electorate”

This is a follow-up to last week’s post on campaign microtargeting.  I had the opportunity this weekend to read Eitan Hersh’s new book, Hacking the Electorate.  It’s the most detailed, insightful account of how campaigns currently make use of voter data in elections.  I learned a lot from the book, and strongly recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

The core of Hersh’s argument is what he calls the Perceived Voter Model.  “Perceived voters compose the electorate from the campaign’s-eye-view.  They are not people; they are avatars generated from whatever data a political campaign, candidate, or party can surmise” (end of chapter 1).*  His central point is that, if we want to understand how contemporary campaigns strategize, we need to pay attention to the actual data that they have access to.  Campaigns are not omniscient.  They go to war with the data that they have, not the data they would like (nor the data that salespeople promise they’ll have).

One of Hersh’s most important findings is that public data (the voter file + the census… stuff that the government collects and makes publicly available) is far more important than commercial data or social network data.  He implements a nice research design to demonstrate this, using state-by-state variance in the public data (some states require party registration, some collect data on race/ethnicity, others do not) to show how differences in public data lead to significantly different voter contact strategies.

He also finds that, for all the talk about commercial data and network data, campaigns can’t put much weight on these data sources (chapter 8).  The commercial data is incomplete and often out-of-date.  While the most well-resourced campaigns certainly purchase this data, they gain very little added leverage from it.  At best, they can use this data in states that are public data-deficient to try to model the same voter attributes they are tracking in states with rich public data policies.

Meanwhile, network-based strategies to reach undecided voters through their social networks (aka Facebook) have been severely limited, at least thus far.  The network approach proves difficult because (a) it requires core volunteers to start awkward conversations with their least-political friends, (b) it proves hard to reach the whole electorate when starting from the networks of hardcore volunteers, and (c) committed campaign volunteers tend to have social networks that are heavily weighted towards other strong partisans.  Again, this doesn’t mean that social networks are unimportant (see Ashley Parker’s NYT story today about Facebook in the primaries), but it does limit their value compared to other data sources.

Public data is reliable and relatively complete.  Consumer data is patchier and less reliable.  Network data is rich but constrained by the contours of your supporter base.  When trying to determine and model their voter universe, campaigns mostly have to rely on public data.

The takeaway here isn’t “we don’t need to worry about microtargeting.”  The point is that our normative debates about microtargeting ought to be grounded in an empirical understanding of the current state of the data.

That provides a lot of room for policy debates as well.  The types of reliable and relatively complete data that are available to political campaigns are dictated by state policies.  What sort of data should be available, in what contexts, at what costs, and to which users?  Hersh ends the book by arguing that some of the real threats come when elected officials start using campaign data for governance.  (Want help from your Congressperson?  Just a moment while they check whether you’re in their supporter database or not.)

One of the reasons why microtargeting attracts so much attention is that it is surrounded by an almost alchemical or mystical sensibility.  (“There are data wizards!  They know so much about us, and they are using it to manipulate our democratic elections!”)  Hacking the Electorate provides an insightful account of just what types of data the campaigns can currently rely upon.  It’s an excellent, grounding contribution to the data and politics literature.



*I read the book on my iPad, so I have no earthly idea what page number this quote correlates to.  Ah, technology…