Ted Cruz Campaign Takes Voter Micro-Targeting To Next Level
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign is obsessed with data. If there's political science research proving an idea works, there's a good chance his staff has studied it. That's why Cruz didn't back down last month when the campaign came under fire for sending mail to Iowa voters shaming them for not showing up to vote in recent elections.
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TED CRUZ: And I will apologize to nobody for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote.
SIEGEL: NPR's Scott Detrow takes a look at the campaign's unique analytical effort - and attempt to try to quantify the personality type of every Republican voter it's trying to woo.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Ted Cruz's campaign wants to talk to you one-on-one. And to have a good one-on-one conversation, you need to know who you're talking to. That's why you probably Google blind dates before you meet them, and it's why Cruz is spending millions working with a British company that claims it's put together more than 4,000 data points on every single American voter - how often you vote, who your friends are and, most importantly for Cruz, what issues you're interested in.
CHRIS WILSON: What this allows us to do is do something that products have been for a long time, which is market to individuals specifically, be able to talk to them about things they care about.
DETROW: That's Chris Wilson, Cruz's director of research and analytics. But he says knowing the issues isn't enough. The campaign needs to know why a voter cares about something like gun rights.
WILSON: There are people who support the Second Amendment because they live in a rural community, they like to go hunting. There are people who are supporting the Second Amendment because they care about the Constitution. There are people who support the Second Amendment because they want to be able to protect themselves and their families.
DETROW: The Cruz campaign has divided Republicans into five different personality types. When the campaign reaches out with phone calls, canvassing or targeted ads, each group gets a slightly different sales pitch.
ALEXANDER NIX: We're appealing to the same demographic on the same issue, yet how we nuance this engagement is completely different.
DETROW: At this point, you're probably wondering how all this works. Well, Alexander Nix is the person to explain it. He's the CEO of Cambridge Analytica, the British company the Cruz campaign is working with on all this. Nix says a lot of the data the company has on personality types comes from...
NIX: A 120-question survey that seeks to probe personality. And we've rolled this out to literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people across America.
DETROW: The company asks all sorts of questions about personality and behavior. Then it scores people on traits like openness, extroversion and agreeableness. That gets mixed together with polls, voter records and online activity to create the personality models the Cruz campaign uses to talk to voters.
NIX: If I've talked to enough people who look like you in terms of what data they have, I'd be able to quantify your personality based on the discussions I've had with other people.
DETROW: But here's the thing about how all this works - it's all pointless if the message doesn't get to the actual voters. The people often charged with delivering the message aren't professionals.
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DETROW: They're the volunteers.
JONATHAN MORALES: I was just wondering if you're planning on voting in the primaries.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, I'll vote in the primaries.
DETROW: NPR went door-to-door with Cruz volunteers in South Carolina and New Hampshire. And we found some of them, like Jonathan Morales, tossing all that time, all that money and all that number-crunching to the curb.
MORALES: I try to stay away from the script that they give us. The scripts are very helpful, but it just works a lot better when you engage them.
DETROW: Even when the message is delivered, a lot of experts are skeptical that individual personalities can be captured by big-picture data and modeling.
EITAN HERSH: Persuadability is finicky.
DETROW: Yale University political scientist Eitan Hersh studies micro-targeting. Hersh says, even on the same person, different arguments will work at different times. On top of that, Hersh questions whether finding out all this additional information is worth the effort it takes to dig it up.
HERSH: Our politics just aren't divided in 168 ways. They're not. They're divided in a few different ways. There's a few kinds of issues that divide people, even among partisans of the same party.
DETROW: Clearly Ted Cruz's campaign disagrees. That's why it's taking the time to find out that, say, South Carolina voters are really worried about budget cuts at a local army base and then coming up with five different ways to talk to them about those specific concerns. Scott Detrow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.