Data and Messaging

The first Netroots Nation session I attended today featured an array of alarmingly young political consultants who talked about the use of data to guide messaging in the 2012 culture-war battles. I was interested in this topic because the down-ballot progressive victories on same-sex marriage, and the effective mobilization of unhappiness with conservative culture-war campaigns on abortion and marriage equality, haven’t gotten the national media attention they deserve. Nor, for that matter, have we heard a lot about the use of data-driven targeting and messaging in 2012 outside the presidential campaigns.

I’ll distill for you the three “lessons learned” from the panel that struck me most:

* The right way to think about the endless debate over broadcast versus online advertising is that “it doesn’t matter what kind of screen you use to display your message; it only matters that people see it.” So deployment of ad resources is pretty strictly a matter of how much penetration a particular medium has for a particular audience, and a wealthy campaign should use everything.

* Advocates for social change “like to see themselves” in voter communications. This has been a constant complaint, for example, about marriage equality ads that never feature LGBT folk. The 2012 campaigns scratched that itch (really another way of expressing concerns about “always playing on enemy turf”) effectively, though mostly with highly targeted online ads.

* For all the talk about various data-gathering methods for finding and targeting voters, the indispensable resource is still voter lists. That was underlined by an audience member from Canada, who noted that country did not make such lists available.

In the discussion on data-gathering, I found it interesting that panel moderator Jamie Ruth felt the need to explain that data used by progressive political campaigns are based on “voluntarily offered” data, not any sort of surreptitious data-mining. That shows how deeply the NSA surveillance issue has penetrated the political debate, certainly among the self-conscious progressives who attend Netroots Nation.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.