On Friday, streaming music service Pandora announced that it will begin accepting political ads. The ads will target voters based on the ZIP code entered at registration.
This could not have been a hard decision for the company. Citizens United has ensured that an already money-soaked process will see bushels more donors looking to invest where they can. Earlier this month, the Times noted that the river of cash is reshaping local TV news, spurring consolidations intended to streamline cash intake before 2012 gets into full swing. In 2008, the McCain and Obama campaigns spent a combined $370 million on TV ads; that total will certainly go up next year.
The goal of a modern political campaign is simply articulated, if complex in practice: delivering a particular message to a particular voter. It's microtargeting: fracturing the pool of voters into pieces that can be pitched precisely. Nearly every financial decision is made with this in mind: how can we deliver the best possible message to the best possible voter at the lowest possible cost?
The process works as follows, at least for a race above a certain budget. A poll is commissioned, revealing existing bases of support and messages that resonate for particular populations. Talking about your candidate's work on the school board is popular with Asian women, say, while her opposition to gun control legislation appeals to white men in the suburbs. This knowledge, combined with public data about voters, lets campaigns do two things: try and increase the number of supporters who come out to vote, and convince likely voters to vote for their candidate.
For a campaign, money spent is money that has to be raised. So they balance considerations: cost, ability to target a message, size of potential audience, efficacy. Sending direct mail, for example, allows you to target individual voters, like Latinos in a particular zip code. It's not too expensive for a small audience. Broadcast television on the other hand lets you hit a huge swatch of people, but that reduces the targeting - and it's more expensive.
The chart below, which I constructed from personal experience and ran by some consultants, provides a rough overview of how techniques compare. Circle size is potential audience. The darker the blue, the more effective it is in communicating a message; I'll admit some subjectivity in that designation. (Pandora, Twitter and Facebook are new enough in this space that it's hard to judge efficacy, hence the shading.)
You can see that the ideal technology would be a giant, dark blue circle covering the upper left quadrant. It doesn't exist. What campaigns do, then, is some highly targeted, low-cost tools mixed with a broad blanket covering everyone else.
Today, the blanket is television. On broadcast channels, you can reach a huge audience. On cable, you can refine your targets (think: Golf Channel). You can pick a location -- helpful in races at every level. It's proven. People remember the ads they see. And, like lawn signs, candidates love them. They like to see their name out in the world.
But the peak moment of influence for TV ads is near. Broadcast's audience is softening; cable networks' targeting is unrefined. Both hit wide swaths of people who don't need to see the ad. City-level targeting used to be enough. Now, campaigns want to influence city blocks. They'd love to lose the blanket forever.