Imagine, for a moment, that Congress is targeting a military base in your state with stiff budget cuts.
Think about what makes you more upset: the fact that this base has long played an important, historic role in your community? Or the fact that the budget cuts could have a rippling negative effect on the local economy?
If you're more agitated by the former, you may be what Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign considers a "timid traditionalist." If, on the other hand, the budget cuts make you more worried, you could be a "temperamental" voter.
One Step Further
Campaigns have been carving up voters into narrow, issue-based segments for years. But Cruz's campaign has taken microtargeting one step further. It has spent millions of dollars working with a British company to develop psychological, behavior-based models of American voters.
The idea: to not only identify which issues potential supporters care most about but to also find the best possible way to make the case to them.
"What this allows us to do is do something that products have been doing for a long time, which is market to individuals specifically — be able to talk to them about things they care about," said Chris Wilson, the campaign's director of research and analytics.
The heritage and economy-based concerns are two variations of phone calls the Cruz campaign has been making to South Carolina voters this week, regarding Fort Jackson, a major Army base facing the prospect of major budget cuts.
The Cruz campaign sent this online banner ad to voters it considered "timid traditionalists" in South Carolina
Image via Cruz campaign
Image via Cruz campaign
"Timid traditionalists" get the "local pride" argument; "temperamental" voters hear the economic concerns. Another group, "stoic traditionalists," is receiving more of a national security pitch, with warnings that the cuts are part of an Obama administration push to "undermine the military."
The campaign has been targeting the various behavioral clusters with slightly different online ads, as well.
Voters the Cruz campaign considers "relaxed leaders" saw this banner ad, instead
Image via Cruz campaign
Image via Cruz campaign
The Cruz campaign has spent significant resources trying to figure out which issues voters in early primary states care about. Wilson says the campaign has used "survey research, data collection, just making phone calls ... through lists we might have had, through commercial sources."
The campaign has also developed its own app, which encourages supporters to share information about themselves and their social networks.
But Wilson argues knowing the issues voters care about isn't enough. The campaign needs to know why a voter cares about something like, say, gun rights.
"There are people who support the Second Amendment because they live in a rural community, they like to go hunting," he says. "There are people who support the Second Amendment because they care about the Constitution. There are people who support the Second Amendment because they want to protect themselves and their families."
5,000 Data Points Per Voter
The campaign has paid nearly $4 million, according to The Associated Press, to a company called Cambridge Analytica to help it sort out which voters are motivated by specific factors.
On its website, the company boasts it has collected 5,000 data points on every customer or voter. This is Cambridge Analytica's first foray into American politics, but it has been doing behavioral modeling and communications works for governments and NGOs for several years.
Robert Mercer, a major donor to Cruz-aligned SuperPACS, has financial ties to the company, according to Politico and other news outlets.
"Persuading somebody to vote in a certain way is really very similar to persuading 14- to 25-year-old boys in Indonesia to not join al-Qaida," Alexander Nix, CEO of Cambridge Analytica, told Bloomberg News last year.
Generally speaking, here's how the company's behavioral modeling works. Nix says Cambridge Analytica has developed "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."
The company asks all sorts of questions about personality and behavior. Then it scores people on traits like openness, extroversion and agreeableness — aspects of the typical "big five" personality traits.
That gets mixed together in with polls, voter records and online activity the Cruz campaign has been collecting to create the personality models it uses to talk to voters. Cambridge Analytica may not have talked to you, Nix says, but "if I talk 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 discussion I've had with other people."
'Persuadability Is Finicky'
But here's the thing about all this work: 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. They're the campaign volunteers.
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. "I try to stay away from the script they gave us," Morales said after knocking on a South Carolina door. "The scripts are very helpful, but it just works a lot better when you engage them."
And even when the message is delivered, a lot of experts are skeptical that individual personalities can be captured by big-picture data and modeling. "Persuadability is finicky," said Yale political scientist Eitan Hersh, who studies microtargeting and recently wrote a book about it.
"You're persuadable sometimes but not other times," Hersh said. "You're persuadable from a certain kind of appeal at a certain moment by a certain candidate. But what persuaded you then might not persuade you a week later."
On top of that, Hersh questions whether finding out all this additional information is worth the effort it takes to dig it up. "Our politics just aren't divided in 168 ways," he said, referencing the number of issue and behavioral combinations — 167 — the Cruz campaign said it divided Iowa voters into ahead of its caucus win. "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."
One thing's for sure about the Cruz campaign's behavioral modeling attempts and its partnership with Cambridge Analytica: They're getting a lot of attention among political digital operatives. Everyone NPR talked to for this story had a strong opinion on the Cruz campaign's operations, whether it was positive or negative.
Nix insists this is the future of microtargeting, and a long-overdue future at that. He says, with frustration, that campaigns have focused for far too long on geographic and demographic information, when it's homing in on which voters to engage or not engage that matters. "Yes, demographics and geographics are important," he says. "But really what's important is to start clustering people by personality."
"Your decision-making is based on your personality," he says. "And not on your gender. Nor is it based on your age or your wealth or any other demographic or geographic factor."
The question is, whether the information we inadvertently share about ourselves in our purchases, online behavior and the neighborhoods we live in gives campaigns like Ted Cruz's enough information to figure out how, exactly, we make those decisions.