Micro-targeting: the missing strategy Biden didn’t inherit from Obama
How the business model of micro-targeting contributed to the electoral triumph of Obama and how Biden won without it.
Running an election campaign in the 21st century relies more on business models. One of the most powerful tools for achieving success is micro-targeting.
Unlike his predecessor, the President-elect Joe Biden, however, chose a traditional approach towards his 270-vote threshold to become president. In the 2020 presidential campaign, Trump was again taking advantage of the social media giant’s granular knowledge of its users’ interests to target specific ads to specific people, and is doing so much more often than Biden.
In terms of campaigning, perhaps Trump is not the real master of micro-targeting, Obama is.
Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008. As Obama’s slogan was “we need to change,” the strategy of his campaign also focused on the “change.” The change was not only reflected in Obama’s issue and policy positions on health care, taxes, and foreign policy, but also in the ways of his electoral campaign.
Three organizational levels
One innovative way Obama used to campaign was political micro-targeting. Let’s go back to 2008 and examine how micro-targeting, performed by Spotlight Analysis, contributed to Obama’s triumph.
A successful political micro-targeting relies on the proper use of decision-making systems. There are three primary types of decision-making systems at three organizational levels. According to University of Denver’s business professor Paige Baltzan,
“The first level is the operational level where employees develop, control, and maintain core business activities required to run the day-to-day operations.”
At this level, Obama’s campaign team members (or perhaps volunteers) collected information of the 175 million eligible voters, and made necessary short-term structured decisions frequently and repetitively.
“The second level is the managerial level where employees are continuously evaluating company operations to hone the firm’s abilities to identify, adapt to, and leverage change.”
At this level, Obama’s middle-level campaign managers, as well as external analysis groups he hired, used their business intelligence to conduct necessary analysis and evaluations, make semistructured decisions, and provide potential solutions and recommendations daily, weekly, and monthly over the course of the campaign period.
“The third level is the strategic level where managers develop overall business strategies, goals, and objectives, as part of the company’s strategic plan. The core of the strategic level is the executive information system, which is ‘specialized decision support systems that support senior-level executives and unstructured, long-term, nonroutine decisions requiring judgment, evaluation, and insight’”.
At this level, the Obama campaign’s top executives and advisors focused on external factors such as polls, competitors, and public opinions. They set some long-term goals and use their knowledge to make unstructured decisions that ultimately lead to the long-term changes of Obama’s voter support in strategic states and groups.
Use of analytical information
Spotlight primarily used analytical information to identify the 10 tribes, but still relies on certain transactional information. The transactional information encompasses all the information contained within a single business process or unit of work, and its primary purpose is to support the performance of daily operational or structured decisions; the analytical information encompasses all organizational information, and its primary purpose is to support the performance of managerial analysis or semi-structured decisions.
First, Spotlight used old-fashion interviews to collect people’s information details, such as race, religion, family size, age, and income bracket. So during this process, the transactional information is the key.
Next, Spotlight conducted certain sorting, analysis and grouping, and by working on the analytical information, it classified all the voters into 10 tribes. Figure 1 illustrates the business process model used to identify the 10 tribes. Barn Raisers was classified as a swing group and they might be critical to determine the election outcome.
After making strategic decisions, strategic business processes is significant to optimize the result. According to Baltzan,
“Reengineering is an improvement process that contains analysis and redesign of workflow within and between enterprises.”
For Obama’s campaign, his team used the reengineering process to develop political micro-targeting. When embarked on research, Spotlight using the old-fashioned method: interviewed thousands of voters and grouped by traditional demographics. However, they found nothing by using this way. The analysis of these interviewed voters only showed a little relativity information.
So, they improve it through reengineering. They switched from traditional categorizing such as Hispanics and Catholics to behavioral grouping, and in nanoseconds, they identified millions of potential swing voters. Accordingly, through the reengineering process, Obama’s team improved the political micro-targeting effectively and efficiently.
Core metrics of evaluations (KPIs and CSFs)
There are two core metrics to evaluate results and to determine whether the decision could get their goals. The first one is Critical Success Factors (CSFs), which are the crucial steps companies perform to achieve their goals, objectives and implement their strategies; the other one is Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), which are the quantifiable metrics a company used to evaluate progress towards CSFs.
Table 1 shows the lists of some probably CSFs and KPIs Obama’s team could use to measure the success of political micro-targeting.
Why Biden still won without micro-targeting
Political micro-targeting is powerful in presidential campaigns, especially in identifying swing groups. However, it does not signals the dehumanization of politics. Traditional politicians like Joe Biden still have their chances in today’s political arena.
First, data does not vote. The potential voting preference does not equal the actual vote on Election day. As of December 7, 2020, 66.7 percent of the eligible voting population in the U.S. voted in the 2020 presidential election and only 56 percent of U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. So the swing groups identified by micro-targeting might not actually turn out to be the swing “voters.”
Second, voters will also consider the issues preferences and policy stances of the candidates when deciding their votes. Perhaps it was Obama’s popular qualitative campaign messages that appealed to voters and contributed to his victory. Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton also used micro-targeting, but still lost their elections. Donald Trump used Cambridge Analytica for micro-targeting, but there were other factors that resulted in his victory.
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“Old fashion still works.”
Last but not least, if micro-targeting did make the candidates target and mobilize the voters, it actually informed those target voters and encouraged more people to participate in politics. The universal mail-in and absentee ballot increased the voter turnout in the 2020 general elections and probably played a role in contributing to Biden’s victory as well.