August 9, 2020

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

Tom Nolan with clients
“We could target voters based off their vote history, how they performed, mapped with other things, age demographics, for instance,” says Tom Nolan. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
How precisely can the consultants target voters? “I wouldn’t go so far to say that I know what kind of car you drive, but we absolutely know what your religious affiliations are, the clubs that you belong to. Those kinds of records are indicators of which way you’ll vote,” explains April Schiff, a Republican campaign consultant in Tampa who has worked for U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, the Republican Party of Florida and numerous state and local officials.

The political operatives continue mining data all the way through election day. Early voting provides a two-week window during which campaigns track who’s voted — Schiff says it’s possible to get daily updates. If she’s done her work right, she can guess with some certainty how her candidate is doing. “If you know who’s voted, you can pull them off mailing lists, pull them off your phone lists — and if you have identified your supporters, you know how many votes you’ve gotten.”

But if it sounds like the politicos have mastered the art of influencing hearts and minds, think again. Despite being able to muster an ever-larger arsenal of intelligence about voters, the consultants say it’s actually becoming harder to reach people. Direct mail pieces, which cost on average 50 cents a pop, all too often end up unread in the garbage can. A 30-second TV ad can be TiVo’d into oblivion. And thanks to caller ID, automated phone calls known as “robocalls” — which at 3 to 5 cents a call are the cheapest form of political communication — often go unanswered.

All those firewalls mean the consultants have had to increase the volume and frequency of their candidates’ messages. John Sowinski, an Orlando-based Republican political consultant who engineers initiative campaigns, says he used to purchase about 800 “gross ratings points” for a political advertisement to make an impact on voters — that measure of ad volume indicates that an average viewer sees a commercial eight times. Today, because consumers delay or avoid seeing ads by using TiVo and other video-recording technology, Sowinski has to buy 1,200 to 1,400 gross ratings points before tracking polls indicate that voters have seen an ad often enough to influence their opinions.

Those gross ratings points translate into big bills for the campaigns. Sowinski estimates that in the 1990s it cost less than $1 million to run one effective ad in Florida. Today, running that same ad statewide would cost $3.5 million.

Meanwhile, the internet has also emerged as a wild card on the political playing field — one over which the professional consultants have limited control. “Everyone can now become a director or producer, a filmmaker — and the more provocative, the better the opportunity they have to be seen,” says Adam Goodman, a GOP media strategist who has created campaign commercials for Rudy Giuliani and much of the Florida Legislature.

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