Is Voter Targeting a Mistake?

I picked up my husband Glenn’s Yale Alumni Magazine and saw a short piece called, “Barack and Mitt, take Note:”

Political campaigns are increasingly using voter targeting: sending tailored messages to voters based on their ethnicity, religion, or special interest. But new research suggests that it doesn’t really work. A new paper expected to appear in the Journal of Politics implies that voters rarely prefer targeted messages to general messages—and that they don’t take kindly to off-target messages.

Eitan Hersh, a political scientist at Yale, and Brian Schaffner, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, created a fictional congressional candidate named Williams. As part of a survey, they showed the “candidate’s” messages to four groups of potential voters—people in union households, gun owners, born-again Christians, and Latinos—and showed off-target messages to voters who didn’t belong to any of these groups.

Some group members received a generic message (“Williams pledges to work hard on behalf of the middle class”) and others a targeted message (“Williams pledges to represent the interests of Latinos in Congress”). The voters seemed unswayed by targeted messaging: when Latinos were asked to rate a candidate on a scale of 0 to 100, those who got a targeted message rated the candidate about the same as did those who got the generic message.

The most conspicuous finding: mistakes in targeting are costly. Non-Latinos who got the Latino message tended to rate the candidate 25 points lower than did those who got the generic message. “This is not trivial,” says Hersh. He estimates that 25 percent of those targeted as Latino do not identify themselves that way. ….


One thing I wondered about from this study is if people who are identified by ethnicity were less likely to be persuaded to vote for a candidate. Afterall,  gun owners have an issue–the second amendment–whereas someone identified as a Latino may have issues that are partly seen as conservative, other times more liberal. I looked up the authors of the study to see if I could find out more about how they conducted their surveys and found this article that stated:

So far, our results indicate that targeted appeals only increase support for Republican candidates among born again Christians and appear to offer little advantage over broader-based appeals among Latinos and members of labor unions.

Also from the article:

In most cases, candidates did no better among group members by appealing directly to that group’s identity. Further-more, these narrower appeals come with risks as such appeals led to diminished support for the candidate among non-group members.

I find this study interesting–is this how you respond to voter targeting or do you feel differently than the study findings?



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