Targeted Issue Messages and Voting Behavior

Date01 March 2020
Published date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(2) 317 –328
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X19875694
Modern campaigns use detailed information from state voter
files and data generated estimates of individuals’ policy
positions to guide their targeting strategies and messaging.
Armed with these policy predictions, campaigns can focus
their outreach on the particular issue that the data suggest
will be most effective at moving each individual to their side
by Election Day. Contrary to the narrative often promoted
by their data analytics teams and the media (e.g., Brennan,
2012), these estimates are not foolproof. When campaigns
narrowcast policy appeals, some people will be targeted
with a congruent issue in which their own position aligns
with the candidate’s position. Others will be inadvertently
targeted with an incongruent issue in which they and the
messaging candidate maintain different positions. Potential
gains accrued when the campaign targets individuals with
congruent issue me ssages could be offset when they target
others with incongruent issue messages. In this study, I eval-
uate turnout and vote choice when campaigns mistakenly
target registered voters with an incongruent issue message
and when campaigns target registered voters with a congru-
ent message to see whether, on balance, an issue-based tar-
geting strategy is effective. Using detailed contact records
from Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, combined
with survey data and validated turnout records for two bat-
tleground states, I assess the relationship between narrowly
targeted issue messages and voting behavior.
Recent research in political science and elsewhere has
documented the rise in data analytics (Hersh, 2015; Hillygus
& Shields, 2008; Issenberg, 2013) but few have evaluated its
use in the context of an actual campaign. Data advancements
allow the campaign to focus its outreach on individuals who
are believed to share common ground with the candidate
based on estimates of their issue positions. These predictions
should facilitate mobilization and persuasion by allowing
campaigns to emphasize policy agreements to win support
from individuals who learn (or are reminded) that they agree
with the candidate on an issue (see Hillygus & Shields,
2008). In theory, this should be a successful strategy when
campaigns are contacting voters with shared issue messages.
However, narrowly targeting policy appeals is potentially
risky when they include divisive and polarizing topics, com-
monly referred to as “wedge” issues (Hillygus & Shields,
2008; Wiant, 2002), especially in light of the challenges
campaigns face forecasting where individuals positions
themselves on policy issues (Endres, 2016).1 When cam-
paigns rely on sometimes faulty policy predictions, some
individuals will encounter campaign content highlighting
issue(s) in which the recipient and the candidate share the
same position, and they may behave as theorized by voting
for the candidate who targeted them. Others will inevitably
875694APRXXX10.1177/1532673X19875694American Politics ResearchEndres
1Duke University, Durham, NC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Kyle Endres, Duke University, 140 Science Drive, Durham, NC 27708,
Targeted Issue Messages and Voting
Kyle Endres1
In today’s data-driven campaigns, presidential targeting strategies rely on detailed perceptions about the political leanings
and policy positions of Americans to decide which registered voters to contact and which messages to emphasize in their
outreach. However, identifying supporters and opponents of a candidate’s policy positions is far from foolproof. This reality
results in some citizens encountering political message(s) on congruent issues, where their issue stance aligns with the
messaging candidate, and others encountering incongruent issue message(s), where the candidate and message recipient
do not share the same position. Examining official contact records from the 2012 presidential campaign of Republican
Mitt Romney, I find evidence that Romney’s campaign had some success when targeting Democrats with congruent issues.
Messaging Democrats with an issue where they and Romney share common ground is associated with decreased support for
Obama, increased abstention, and increased support for Romney. Contacting Democrats with an incongruent message and
contacting Republicans with either an incongruent or congruent issue message had minimal effects on the voting behavior of
the recipient.
campaigns, targeting, elections, abstention, persuasion

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