The Strange Brew of Curious Political Data

Does Data Linking Voters and Wacky Consumer Preferences Help Political Campaigns?

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Credit: Neustar

It happens every election season: A flood of eye-catching data points turn up in political stories about voters. More Democrats like salsa music and drink Cognac. Abortion opponents are more likely to eat candy. People in red states spend more of their budgets on entertainment and sports equipment.

Today, data services firm Neustar unveiled a collection of unexpected stats related to voter preferences that would seem to have no connection to political issues. Democrats are 118% more likely to listen to salsa and meringue music and 70% more likely to drink Cognac. Republicans are 42% more likely to own at least one dog and 32% more likely to drink microbrew brands of beer.

In 2011 and 2013 reports, Republican media firm National Media also found that Democrats are more likely to drink Cognac or Courvoisier. However, the company determined that it was the party on the left that was also more likely to drink "any microbrew," in contrast with Neustar's finding. National Media still showcases its "The Politics of Beer" and "The Politics of Wine & Liquor Brands" research on its website homepage.

In October NPD Group promoted data showing links between consumer behavior and where they resided. The research firm said people in blue states spent more of their money on beauty footwear and over-indexed on gourmet food, jewelry and watches. Red staters spent a larger share at mass merchants and on entertainment, sports equipment and auto related items.

Hoping to score political clients as the primary season ramped up, digital ad firm Rocket Fuel in August pitched reporters with catchy data points from its study of swing voters. One odd stat showed abortion opponents were more likely than supporters to visit dessert pages on cooking sites. The pitch helped generate a story in USA Today.

Despite making for fun headlines, does this type of information have a valuable place in a political media buyer's playbook?

"We use all those attributes to help people understand what channels they will find an audience in," said Lisa Joy Rosner, CMO of Neustar, suggesting that such data validates audience characteristics and provides "non-intuitive insights." Neustar based its research on actual online and offline consumer transactions tied to 180 million US voter profiles. "We're helping people build digital audiences," she added, noting that this is the first time Neustar has publicized data about voters to the political market in a "promotion of this ilk."

"Unless you're with a modeling and analytics firm, the data you're talking about is a curiosity but not terrible useful," said Laura Packard, Democratic political strategist and partner at PowerThru Consulting, who works with congressional, senate and gubernatorial candidates. "In my opinion, that data is most useful for people building a targeting model, but a general political consultant has no need of data that granular," she added.

Doug Watts, president of political consultancy Urban Media Group said he's often received pitches from data and targeting firms featuring data points that may seem unrelated to politics. "It's pretty rare when most of this esoteric information makes a difference. You still are dealing generally in large numbers in an election situation and it's not like there's only one avenue into these people," said Mr. Watts, former spokesman for the Ben Carson campaign, who also handled some media decisions for the campaign.

Political campaigns have been known to target lists of people who own certain makes of automobiles such as Volvo or Suburu, which can be a proxy for other characteristics associated with the groups they want to reach. Some suggested that the seemingly-irrelevant consumer behavior associated with voters can complement other more endemic information. For instance, A/B tests could reveal that targeted segments who have shown interest in certain types of vehicles or sports perform better or worse than others when it comes to fundraising. Or, as news content becomes cluttered with political ads, advertisers could aim ads contextually in content relevant to those consumer preferences.

"On the internet it's a lot easier to put in a segment that is a candy lover or camper and if it doesn't do well tomorrow then pause it," said Jamie Bowers, digital advertising director for National Media.

"Some of these are just naturally demographic correlations," said Michael Horn, senior VP and chief analytics officer at Resonate, a firm that, like Neustar and Rocketfuel, helps political advertisers target ads to voters. Such data "might be news to the general public," but professionals dealing with demographic data see these types of weak to moderate correlations often, he said.

Links between consumer preferences and political beliefs can help advertisers define audience segments and develop customized ad content, he said, noting, "There are cases where consumer values have a clear relationship to political values." For instance, Democrats tend to respond more to messaging related to the environmental impact of automobiles, he said.

"It's a relationship that's grounded in the applicability of both consumer values and political values and environmental consciousness is a good example of that."

As the Iowa caucuses loom, now could be the most opportune time to test the value of strange consumer correlations, said Mr. Watts, suggesting that knowing tidbits about key voter segments could help campaigns craft more appropriate messaging for emails, phone calls and door-to-door canvassing.

"If there ever is an application for it," he said, "it's in the caucuses because you have hands-on personalized communication at least a half a dozen times."

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