Does the Soda You Drink Reveal How You Vote?

Politicians Use Consumer Preferences to Target Voters


Nov. 5, 2006 —

Sprite or Dr Pepper? Audi or Saab? Bourbon or vodka?

Such lifestyle choices say as much about you as whether you approve of the job the president is doing.

Political groups are now utilizing information advertisers and corporate America have been exploiting for years by finding out your consumer preferences and using that data to get you to buy their product -- in this case, their politicians.

"There is something about a product choice that tells people a sense of who they are," said Matthew Dowd, President Bush's pollster and co-author of "Applebee's America: How Successful Political, Business and Religious Leaders Connect With the New American Community."

The practice is called "microtargeting," and it shows that people who like Dr Pepper and monster trucks tend to be more Republican, while people who choose Sprite and pro wrestling are more likely to be Democrats.

Every time you use your credit card, book a flight, or surf the Internet, you leave a data trail of products you like. Political groups purchase that information from consumer data banks such as Axciom, and combine it with census information, voter lists, information about membership in political groups, and other public records such as whether or not you own a hunting license.

After creating a master list for a specific state or region, they poll thousands of people in that area to see how to categorize voters.

"This data-mining allows you to create profiles at each of these states or communities depending on the size of the election you're running in," said Doug Sosnik, a Democratic strategist and co-author of "Applebee's America."

"You're able to go into those places, and off of those profiles, [you can find out] ... who these people are and where they live, by household, so you can go directly to them to communicate," Sosnik said.

Last week we met up with Trina Handler - a Columbus, Ohio, mother of four -- and gave her a quiz to find out how lives her life, what water she drinks, the car she drives, the magazines she reads -- and we asked microtargeting experts assess her.

Handler chose Democratic Sprite over Republican Dr. Pepper, but went for U.S. News & World Report over TV Guide, which is favored by Democrats who tend to watch more television.

"Trina is a tipper," sad Ron Fournier, another co-author of "Applebee's America." "She's someone who came into the electon not sure who she was going to vote for. She could go to either party."

The best way to reach someone like Handler, according to Dowd, is through personal contact.

"The best thing you can do ... is to have some personal contact from somebody who has a general similar viewpoint as them," he said.

In microtargeting lingo, such people are called "influentials" or "navigators," the one person out of 10 in a community who tell the other nine where to eat, what movies to see and how to vote -- a theory based on a book called "The Influentials" by John Berry and Ed Keller.

In 2004, the Bush campaign pinpointed two million "influentials" nationally.

Microtargeters insist that the best way to make appeals to voters is not through a barrage of anonymous phone calls or negative TV ads, but by having Navigators make the pitch.

Last week, Handler told ABC News that her votes would tend to be Democrat in this election. "I'm going to vote a lot more Democrat than I have in a long time," she said.

Since then, however, she's spoken to a number of "navigators," and now she says she may split her vote.

A key part of microtargeting is not only categorizing these voters, but figuring out the messages that would best appeal to them, and the best way to deliver those messages. In Ohio in 2004, a group the Bush-Cheney campaign called "Young Unreliable Pro-President Bush Independents" were told about the president's education policy. "Anti-Porn Women" were informed about a Bush proposal to restrict Internet access to obscene Web sites in public libraries.

ABC News worked with two mothers in Fairfax County, Va., to see whether the strategists could guess their political affiliation by what they bought.

Sara Brady, 52, a mother of three, told ABC News she would shop at Wal-Mart over Whole Foods, buy Coors beer instead of Budweiser, and opt to watch U.S. Open tennis over college football.

Dowd said that while Wal-Mart shoppers and Coors beer drinkers tend to trend Republican, people who watch the U.S. Open trend more liberal. So how would microtargeters view her?

"There are many things that make her look like she would lean in more of the Republican camp, but ... she's not necessarily solid," Dowd said.

Brady agreed with Dowd's assessment.

"He's right on target. I think he's very accurate," she said.

Lori Bernstein, a mother of two, told ABC News that she would also choose the U.S. Open, but that she would shop at Whole Foods.

Given a choice between an Audi or a Saab, she opted for an Audi.

Organic food is considered quite Democratic, while Audis are statistically more Republican.

"She leans slightly to the Democratic side, I think," Dowd said. "She is very much what we would call a 'tipper.'"

Bernstein agreed: "That's probably somewhat true, probably right in the middle, but I probably lean a little Democratic."

Democrats are now trying to catch up, trying to microtarget in selected states this year. We should all expect to be microtargeted in 2008 -- when the stakes will be even higher than this year.