In the run-up to every election, newspapers fill with articles about the handful of voters that will supposedly swing the result – ‘soccer moms’, ‘NASCAR dads’, ‘Worcester women’, even ‘pebbledash people’. Occasionally this analysis is useful. Normally it is not. In the past six UK elections, 84 per cent of demographic groups swung in the same way as the population as a whole.
A common trick to make a target group sound like it's worth focusing on is to highlight what is distinctive about them, at the expense of what is important. For example, Guardian readers are more likely to be Labour voters (73 per cent voted Labour in 2017) than Mail readers (17 per cent). But the Mail sells nine times as many copies as the Guardian, more than enough to compensate for the difference. If you want to target Labour voters, the Mail reaches more of them than the Guardian.
Another technique is to present polling results comparing one subgroup with another, without mentioning specific numbers.
It allows you to say things like ‘older men were twice as likely as younger women to think the Conservatives are on the side of ordinary people’. This sounds significant until you realise that the numbers in question (from a poll I carried out for the TUC) are 6 per cent and 3 per cent.
So why do we get all this fuss about Mondeo Man and his friends whenever an election rolls around?
It is partly because establishing the importance of particular groups can be politically useful. Campaigning organisations have a particular interest in arguing that their client group will be decisive and therefore make hyperbolic claims about the group’s electoral influence to attract attention from the parties and the press.
Take as an example the claim from Operation Black Vote that ‘the black vote can decide the 2015 general election’. This was based on analysis which found 168 seats where ethnic minority voters outnumbered the majority of the sitting MP. Operation Black Vote is a great organisation that has achieved a lot, but this argument for electoral significance is equally true of almost every non-trivial demographic group in those seats. It would apply to women, men, the over-forties, the under-forties, mums, dads, grandparents, racists, anti-racists, believers in astrology, pet-owners and so on.
Thinking of electoral targets in terms of demographic niches leads parties to develop policies aimed at each niche. This is exactly the effect that lobbyists want, but it is not a ticket to electoral success.
As Labour found in 2015, firing popular rent cap policies at young people in Harlow and popular energy policies at older people in Cleethorpes made no difference when Labour wasn’t able to boost trust on the fundamentals of leadership and economic credibility. Lots of hyper-targeted policy, even if it is very popular with the target audiences, is not enough to secure victory.
Parties that successfully use targeting use it in three ways.
First, they use geographic targets: marginal seats, swing districts and battleground states. This form of targeting is absolutely fundamental to campaign design in constituency-focused political systems. Resources are poured into districts where an extra pound might make a difference and kept out of places where a party is confident of victory or defeat. This is not without risks, as illustrated by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, which put a lot of effort into ever more sophisticated modelling of voters, but didn’t bother targeting several of the states that swung the election due to a misplaced confidence that these were ‘safe’.
Second, successful micro-targeted appeals curate and tailor the overall message but do not try to create a separate message. The 2016 Democratic primary was a great example of this point. Bernie Sanders’s strength with young people did not come through specific youth-oriented policy offers but because his overall message attacking corporate greed and calling for radical change resonated particularly strongly with young people. Similarly, the Brexit campaign’s success with older voters came about through linking specific messages to the idea of ‘taking back control’, not focusing on issues that just older people care about. Individualised messages on Facebook and other digital platforms fit within these overall frameworks and amplify the most compelling elements for individuals.
Third, parties use targeting as a form of internal communication.
This is partly about projecting sophistication to political commentators. Shouting about how a campaign will use ‘big data’ is often enough to earn favourable coverage. More importantly, it is about explaining to party volunteers that the people they are trying to persuade have different priorities and values to your typical activist.
One of the most famous target groups in British politics was Mondeo Man. According to Tony Blair: ‘His dad voted Labour. He used to vote Labour, too. But he’d bought his own house now. He’d set up his own business. He was doing very nicely. His instincts were to get on in life.’ Parse that: he’s a man (49 per cent of the population); from a family where at least one parent voted Labour (back when 90 per cent either voted Labour or Conservative); owns his own home (65 per cent of the population); self-employed (so could be in the trades, or running a shop or a small company), and his instincts tell him to work hard and succeed (almost everyone). In short, Mondeo Man was a pretty normal kind of a guy in the types of marginal seat Labour was trying to win. It says less about New Labour’s psephological genius and more about the peculiar internal politics of the party that this kind of person was a stretching target.
This article is an extract from Sex, Lies and Politics: The Secret Influences That Drive our Political Choices out this month, from Biteback Publishing.