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In the 2002 Steven Spielberg film “Minority Report,” consumers entering a shopping mall in an imagined 2054 are addressed by name and their purchasing history.
We are a long ways away from that in the political arena, but new technology from one cable company is changing the way campaigns can deliver ads, and the long-term impact will be profound.
Last year, my colleague Neil Oxman and I were permitted to run separate ads, with radically different messages, to neighboring households watching the same channel at the same time. And that really just scratches the surface when it comes to the possibilities.
The setting was Bergen County, New Jersey. It’s a suburb of New York City, the most populous county in the Garden State, and an area where Republican Governor Chris Christie was wildly popular ahead of last year’s gubernatorial and legislative elections.
Christie’s landslide reelection was widely predicted, so a major effort commenced months before Election Day to ensure that Christie’s coattails didn’t carry Republicans to significant gains in the state legislature.
For several cycles, Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee (DACC) Executive Director Michael Muller had spearheaded successful efforts to retain the Democratic majorities in the state Assembly and Senate. Under his leadership, Democrats lost only one Assembly seat in the 2009 elections that toppled Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, and gained one Assembly seat in the 2011 elections. But as 2013 approached, many New Jersey Republicans boasted that Christie’s growing popularity would enable them to win control of the state Senate and make major gains in the state Assembly.
Susan McCue, a proud New Jersey native and the former chief of staff to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, had the idea of forming a new Super PAC dedicated to reelecting a Democratic majority in New Jersey. Using her experience as the founder of Majority PAC, tasked with helping U.S. Senate Democrats, McCue founded the General Majority PAC and hired veteran manager Jonathan Levy as executive director.
Working with some longtime leaders in the Garden State, McCue and Levy raised more than $8 million to fund their efforts in a handful of districts across New Jersey. Their largest expenditure, for good reason, was in Bergen County’s District 38, which was made more favorable to Republicans in redistricting.
In 2011, incumbent state Sen. Bob Gordon eked out the narrowest victory of any state senator, and 2013 promised to be even more competitive, particularly after Christie singled out Gordon for criticism. Voters in each New Jersey legislative district elect one state senator and two assemblymembers districtwide, and both Democrats running for state Assembly in this district were relatively untested: Paramus Borough Council President Joe Lagana and first-term incumbent Assemblyman Tim Eustace, the first openly-gay person elected to an open seat in New Jersey. So it was clear that all three races would be hotly-contested.
McCue and Levy were rightly concerned the lackluster campaign of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Barbara Buono could lead to decreased Democratic turnout that would sink our candidates. They convened focus groups in LD38 of Democrats who were not certain to vote in November’s election. If we could find out what would motivate them to turn out, despite the lack of a competitive gubernatorial campaign, we’d have a real shot at altering the turnout dynamic.
They launched a nine-week field campaign, independent of what the candidates were doing. The field campaign, which involved mail, canvassers, live persuasion calls, and GOTV calls, connected with more than 11,000 voters and generated 803 vote-by-mail applications.
Given the cost of communicating in this district in the most expensive media market in the nation, the original budget gave us the resources to only punch through two TV ads on cable: one criticizing the Republican candidate for state Senate, and one criticizing both Republicans running for state Assembly.
However, Cablevision, which provided cable service to much of LD38, was providing a new service to political advertisers that gave us a limited ability to communicate a different message on a household-by-household basis. We still had to run an ad into every household in their service area, but for a modest premium, we were permitted to segment their service area so that two neighboring households, both watching TBS at 8:23 p.m. on October 28, for example, would actually see different ads.
Field Strategies identified a list of 2,300 households with voters believed to contain only rock-ribbed Democrats. These voters didn’t need to see our ads criticizing the Republican candidates, because there was no way there would vote for a Republican. But many of these voters were not particularly likely to vote in the November elections, so we wanted to build on the existing GOTV messages and use our TV buy to motivate them to get of their behinds and vote.
Persuading unlikely voters to change their habits is challenging, so we set about creating an emotional, attention-grabbing appeal. We were advised by our pollsters that the most persuasive turnout message was on gun safety, so we created a positive ad with footage from the Sandy Hook massacre and urged people to come out and vote for Senator Gordon, because he was standing up to the gun lobby. Gordon had not shied away from discussing guns in his public messaging, so we were confident there would be no public backlash if the media covered the ad being shown only to our base voters.
We had always expected the results in LD38 to be close, but it turned out that every ounce of effort mattered. Christie rolled to victory with 61 percent. Senator Gordon prevailed with 52 percent of the vote while his Assembly running mates squeaked by with results close enough to require a recount. Broadly, DACC and the General Majority PAC succeeded in preventing Republicans from taking advantage of Christie’s landslide win when they failed to pick up even a single seat in the Assembly or the Senate.
The focus put on boosting turnout played a key role: Statewide, voter turnout fell 15 percent from the previous gubernatorial election. In LD38, voter turnout only fell 7 percent from 2009. In neighboring LD37, which did not feature a competitive campaign or a significant turnout effort, turnout dropped by 18 percent. But the implications go well beyond the results in one county.
Our limited resources meant that we barely scratched the surface of how cable addressability could change the way campaigns communicate. We had a modest amount of information about the candidates, and no evidence to conclude that our highest-testing negative argument (which was the subject of our TV ad) wasn’t the strongest argument to use with all segments of the persuadable electorate.
In a higher-dollar campaign one can imagine that we might have run a series of different ads to different universes. We could have run a negative ad to voters in one specific town highlighting what “Republican X” had done to block the closing of a local landfill, and then a different ad to voters in upscale households highlighting how the same candidate had voted against the environment.
How about another spot targeting voters in working-class households criticizing the candidate’s support for trade deals that shipped American jobs overseas? Campaigns might find it’s in their interest to create and air a handful of different ads to maximize their impact on different voters.
Previously, one could target ads based on the demographics of a particular show, or a cable channel’s audience, but that approach had significant limitations. It’s a fair guess that an ad running on MSNBC or Bravo will be seen primarily by Democrats, but of course there are some non-Democrats who watch those channels and will see those ads. More problematic is that only advertising on networks that skewed heavily Democratic meant not communicating with Democrats watching “mixed” networks like TNT or USA. But this new Cablevision product, which presumably other cable systems will adopt in the coming years, provides much greater reliability when it comes to getting the right message to the right eyeballs.
The future isn’t here quite yet. Most cable systems don’t allow political campaigns to employ this addressability technology. But as it spreads, it’s certain to have a major impact on how campaigns communicate with voters.
J.J. Balaban is a Democratic media strategist with The Campaign Group.