One of the most frustrating aspects of democracy is that there’s no requirement to do research before casting a vote. I could spend hours studying candidates’ positions, histories and promises only to have my vote cancelled out by someone who picked their guy by the signs on their neighbor’s lawn. Yet any solution to this would in itself be undemocratic; quizzing voters at the booths, giving weight to votes based on education or otherwise hindering uninformed voting would skew representation toward the educated middle class and away from those who need it most.
Our partner Debra Bethard-Caplick and I were talking about this at lunch the other day when an idea popped into my head for five seconds before I bit my tongue. “Voter turnout is at an all-time low, but the government is spending lots of money on ads to fix this. Why don’t they just choose their marketing channels based on who is likely to do research before voting?”Obviously I took this back as it would have the same skewed effects as my earlier examples. But it still led to a long discussion about the ethics of a publicly funded campaign for anything electoral.
As professional communicators, we know that letting your audience dictate your choice in channels and messages is the first and most important step to motivating behavior. But that means that choosing a particular channel for any campaign at all will have asymmetric effects on the voter base. Unless your channel choices are balanced to an impossible level, even non-partisan political messages can’t be put out without giving an advantage to one side or the other.
For example: With a turnout of 21.3 percent at the last midterms, Millennials seem like an obvious target. But think about that. Socially, 62% of the young demographic identifies as liberal while 27% see themselves as conservative. Fiscally, it’s 49% to 36%, a smaller but not insignificant gap. If a campaign gets a million more Millennials to the booths, you’re talking hundreds of thousands of votes the “neutral” campaign has handed to the Democratic Party that it hasn’t given to the right. Oops!
We’ve seen the efficacy of demographic targeting in political campaigns before. Obama’s 2008 campaign was famous for mobilizing the minority vote, which in turn led to a landmark victory for the young senator. For the first time in history, black voters had a higher turnout than white voters by over two percent. In fact, the percentage of white voters has slipped tremendously since 1996 from 82.5% to 73.7% in 2012 as turnout among black, Hispanic and Asian voters have climbed.
And it’s not just race that can be targeted. Partisan strategists can use nearly any information they can get about an audience to anticipate their voting behavior. And it’s not just what they look like: In “Death by Demographics,” a presentation Debra has given all around the country, one sees that a person’s behavior inside a voting booth correlates strongly to their behavior outside the booth. People broadcast their political tendencies any time they choose between Chevy and Toyota, Cracker Barrel and Starbucks, or Willie Nelson and Bob Marley.
So what should the government do if they want to raise voter turnout in an unbiased way? Well, since the goal of a representative democracy is to represent, it makes sense to target the unrepresented. But as we saw in the Millennial example, you can’t escape the fact that doing so will be consciously favoring one party over the other. Some may say that this would be fair so long as it’s voters themselves doing the electing. But try telling that to the losing party!
As with anything in politics, the issue is debatable. But I do know this: it’s never been clearer how dramatic the results can be when you know who to target. Pick your audience before you pick your message. If that strategy could get America’s first black president into the White House, just think what it could do for our brands.