April 17, 2024

Politics' Hired Guns

Today, Florida's professional political consultants know more about voters than the voters might like. But for all the tools at their disposal, it's still tough -- and more expensive -- to get a message out.

Amy Keller | 3/1/2008

April Schiff
Signing on: “We guide the candidate through the entire process,” says political consultant April Schiff, who has worked for some high-profile candidates, including U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez. One Florida trend Schiff notes: “The biggest surge in voter registration is (voters) with no party affiliation.” [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

The political consultant’s goal today is the same as it was in 1986 when Tom Nolan got in the game: Identify the voters likely to vote your way and induce them to go to the polls on election day.

But how the game has changed, both for the several dozen people in Florida like Nolan who make a living as political consultants — and for the voters they target.

In 1986, when Nolan needed information on voters, he went to places like the Hardee County Supervisor of Elections office and combed through long boxes filled with index cards that contained data on voters — name, age, gender, address and party affiliation.

Nolan, who lives in Bradenton, was among the first consultants in Florida to use that data to create targeted direct-mail fliers sent directly to voters’ homes. “We could target voters based off their vote history, how they performed, mapped with other things, age demographics, for instance.”


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Today, technology has made the index card-direct-mail strategy seem quaint. When Nolan needs voter registration information for Hardee County these days, he calls the Supervisor of Elections office in Wauchula, which sends him a CD with the information. Nolan then assembles highly detailed voter profiles by cross-referencing the county’s voter list with information from other databases containing consumer information — magazine subscription lists, for example, or rosters of members of interest groups or clubs.

Knowing that a voter is pro-life, for example, or that she cares about the environment, or that she makes more than $100,000, or that she rents rather than owns a home enables Nolan and other consultants to zero in on those most likely to support their candidate.

“These days, if you want to look now at female joggers, you can cross-reference the databases to come up with female joggers who have high-frequency voting records,” says Nolan.

Political professionals in both parties call it microtargeting, and they’re using it to fine-tune everything from direct mail appeals to fund-raising pitches and even door-to-door canvassing. Republicans pioneered the tactic in 2004, when they unleashed the Voter Vault, a massive database containing hundreds of demographic details about millions of voters, and used it in 18 states to try to tip the balance in favor of George W. Bush. Both parties in Florida now maintain extensive statewide databases on voters.

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