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Campaigning through the cloud: How politicians target voters with digital ads

Much of the analysis after the 2012 presidential election focused on how the Obama campaign had made better use of technology than the Romney campaign to get its supporters to the polls. So how are both major parties doing this time around in the days leading up to Tuesday's midterm elections? Journalist Ashley Parker joins Hari Sreenivasan from Washington.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

      Much of the analysis after the 2012 presidential election focused on how the Obama campaign had made better use of technology than the Romney campaign to get its supporters to the polls.

    Tonight, we look at what both major parties are doing this time around in the days leading up to Tuesday’s midterm elections.

    Ashley Parker co-authored an article this weekend in The New York Times, and joins us now from Washington.

    So, it seems that the advantage goes between one party to another party, given which election cycle.  And there’s kind of a game of catchup that happens.

  • ASHLEY PARKER, The New York Times:

      Yes, absolutely.

    And, this time, Republicans are definitely playing catchup.  The Obama campaign really gave Democrats an advantage both in 2008 and 2012.  And, as you said, the Romney campaign didn’t really make the best of their digital team and their data and analytics.  So, you have Republicans who are really trying to catch up this cycle to be prepared for 2016.  And they’re actually taking a lot of pages out, not surprisingly, of the Obama playbook.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

      So give us an example of how digital advertising can be targeted vs. a television spot.

  • ASHLEY PARKER:

      Sure.

    Well, on television, you place your ads on a TV show during the commercial break.  So, for instance, if you place ads on ABC’s “Scandal” because you want to reach female viewers, you get those female viewers, but you also get male viewers who you maybe don’t want, or you maybe don’t get male viewers who are forced to watch the show with their girlfriends.

    With digital advertising, you can basically, this cycle, target someone’s actual device, their cell phone, their tablet.  And it follows them whenever they are.  So, when they’re looking at their phone when they wake in the morning, you can serve them an ad.

    If they’re a congressional district and you’re a congressional campaign, not only can you serve them an ad when they’re at home.  But if you are serving them an ad on their tablet, you can — you can basically target them when they leave their district, while they’re commuting to work, while they’re at work, while they’re on their commute home, and when they’re in their kitchen cooking dinner and checking their phones.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

      OK.

    So, these big companies, say, for example, YouTube or Facebook, are they selling the tastes and preferences — preferences that we are essentially exhibiting and telling them about?

  • ASHLEY PARKER:

      Yes, they absolutely are.

    Facebook, for instance, offers a menu of options to campaigns, from very basic, a campaign could, say, just target female users of Facebook or users who live in a certain zip code on Facebook or users who have liked certain Facebook pages, say, Rachel Maddow and “The Nation” magazine, or Facebook offers a far more sophisticated option, where a campaign can basically upload its voter file, which is the universe of voters they want to target to get out and vote.

    And they can literally serve ads to all those exact people who are users of Facebook.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

      OK.

    So how much money are we talking about campaigns spending in the grand scheme of things?  Is more of it shifting to digital, to targeting like this?

  • ASHLEY PARKER:

      Yes.

    So, you know, each cycle, we’re seeing a larger portion of the overall budget going to digital.  For instance, there are some groups to ensure that digital gets a fair shake who will say, for every TV buy we make, 20 percent or 15 percent of that goes to a digital buy.

    But compared to television, it’s still a very small portion.  So it’s increasing rapidly, but television is still sort of the 800-pound gorilla.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

      All right, Ashley Parker from The New York Times joining us from Washington, thanks so much.

  • ASHLEY PARKER:

      Thank you.

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