This article originally provided by The New York Times

October 1, 2006

Pollsters’ new tactic: profiling

Right-leaning surveys ‘micro-target’ voters

By Scott Finn
Staff writer

You might have received a phone call in the last few days asking if you want to repeal the food tax, or if you would vote for a candidate who wants to loosen the penalties for drunken driving.

Three campaign consultants contacted by the Sunday Gazette-Mail say the calls could be part of a “micro-targeting” strategy. The goal is to identify voters most likely to elect favored candidates, and then tailor messages that appeal specifically to that voter.

People who received these phone calls have been told that Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship is sponsoring the polls. Blankenship has promised to spend “whatever it takes” to unseat Democrats in the House of Delegates in November.

In the old days, campaigns used historical voting data and polling to determine which issues play well with the voters and where to concentrate their “get out the vote” efforts.

More recently, the national GOP has pioneered the strategy of micro-targeting.

Here’s how it works: Political consultants build sophisticated databases that include not just how you voted in previous elections, but whether you drive a Subaru Outback or a Ford F-150, and whether you prefer to shop at Wal-Mart (a likely Republican) or Target (a swing-voter.)

Then they develop profiles of the types of voters that support their preferred candidate and determine which are swing-voters who need further convincing.

Next, they conduct polls to determine what sets you off, known as “anger points.” These are the issues that make you mad enough to show up on Election Day.

Finally, you might receive mailings targeted to your “anger” issue — abortion, corruption, high gas prices, etc.

It’s a more effective way to target political money, especially in a low-turnout midterm election, said Tom Susman, director of TSG Consulting in Charleston.

Several people have contacted the Sunday Gazette-Mail about receiving such calls.

Bob Cohen of Morgantown, a Democrat and a lawyer who specializes in black lung cases, said the questions were:

  • Do you always vote for the labor-backed candidate?
  • Do you support repeal of the 5 percent food tax?
  • Would you support a candidate who wants to loosen the penalties for DUI [driving under the influence]?

    After the third question, Cohen said he asked who was sponsoring the poll and what the name of the polling company was. He said he was told that Blankenship was the sponsor and the polling firm was Conquest Communications.

    Conquest Communications is a Richmond, Va., firm whose clients include Blankenship’s group And For the Sake of the Kids and dozens of mostly Republican candidates, according to its Web site.

    Susman said the polls appear to be part of a strategy to find voters in specific swing districts willing to vote against incumbent Democrats.

    Based on the polling, swing voters should expect to receive mailings that are targeted to the issues they care about, Susman said. Also, voters who are likely to support Blankenship’s preferred candidates are likely to be encouraged to vote as Election Day nears.

    Other voters have reported that they were called recently by West Virginians for Life and asked if they are pro-choice or pro-life.

    Do the state Democrats have any similar effort planned? Pam Van Horn, director of the state Democratic Legislative Council, declined to give specific answers about strategy.

    “While it will be hard for the West Virginia Democratic Party and our candidates to compete with Mr. Blankenship’s 6 million pieces of silver, we will have a well-coordinated and financed turnout operation to get out the Democratic vote,” Van Horn said.

    On a national level, Democrats are playing catch-up to the Republicans’ micro-targeting efforts. And several political observers say that most state-level Democrats are far behind their national counterparts.

    Susman said Democrats are not properly prepared for what is happening this year in the House races. Even if they were, they don’t have the resources to adequately combat the millions Blankenship is threatening to spend.

    “In certain races, where the Democratic incumbents already are weak, this campaign could be enough to topple some of them,” Susman said.

    Susman’s firm, TSG Consulting, is working for two Democratic candidates this year and its sister firm in Wheeling is working for one Republican, Susman said.

    The man running Blankenship’s drive, Greg Thomas, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

    To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.

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