The advent of computer modeling helped automate voter targeting, making it more efficient.
In the 1960s, a market researcher in Los Angeles, Vincent Barabba, developed a computer program to help political campaigns decide which neighborhoods to target. The system overlaid voting precinct maps with details on individuals’ voting histories along with U.S. census data on household economics, ethnic makeup and family composition.
In 1966, political consultants used the system to help Ronald Reagan’s campaign for governor of California identify neighborhoods with potential swing voters, like middle-aged, white, male union members, and target them with ads.
Critics worried about the technology’s potential to influence voters, deriding it as a “sinister new development dreamt up by manipulative social scientists,” according to “Selling Ronald Reagan,” a book on the Hollywood actor’s political transformation.
By the early 2000s, campaigns had moved on to more advanced targeting methods.
For the re-election campaign of President George W. Bush in 2004, Republican consultants classified American voters into discrete buckets, like “Flag and Family Republicans” and “Religious Democrats.” Then they used the segmentation to target Republicans and swing voters living in towns that typically voted Democrat, said Michael Meyers, the president of TargetPoint Consulting, who worked on the Bush campaign.
In 2008, the Obama presidential campaign widely used individualized voter scores. Republicans soon beefed up their own voter-profiling and targeting operations.
A decade later, when Cambridge Analytica — a voter-profiling firm that covertly data-mined and scored millions of Facebook users — became front-page news, many national political campaigns were already using voter scores. Now, even local candidates use them.
This spring, the Government Accountability Office issued a report warning that the practice of consumer scoring lacked transparency and could cause harm. Although the report did not specifically examine voter scores, it urged Congress to consider enacting consumer protections around scoring.