Journalism in the Public Interest

Help Us Track How Politicians Target You

Political campaigns are using increasingly sophisticated methods to target messages to voters, methods that are not at all transparent. We need your help to uncover and understand them.

Political campaigns are using increasingly sophisticated methods to target messages to voters, methods that are not at all transparent. We need your help to uncover and understand them.

Back in March, we noticed that the Obama campaign was sending out many variations of the same email to voters. We asked our readers to forward their version of that message to us, to see if it this would help us understand the sophisticated ways in which campaigns target voters.

Around 200 people forwarded us that email, and what we found was that the campaign had actually sent out six distinct variations of that single message, with some interesting demographic targeting. We called our interactive the Message Machine.

But campaigns are using what they know about us to target messages in more sophisticated ways than ever — and it will take far more than one night’s analysis to understand it — so we’re expanding the experiment way past our test run.

Today, we are relaunching the Message Machine, and expanding it from handling just one mailing to handling every email from all of the campaigns in the 2012 election. It will seek a broad understanding in real time of the new and sophisticated ways modern campaigns are targeting voters.

It’s a big puzzle, and to solve it, we need a big sample of political emails, and an understanding of who received them. That’s where you come in.

If you get campaign emails on any subject — donation, get-out-the-vote, volunteering, events, etc. — just forward them to using your email program’s standard forwarding feature. Nothing fancier than that needed.

After a little while, once we gather enough emails to feel confident that our machine is working right, we will launch an interactive feature that will show you exactly how the campaigns are using your personal information to deliver each message.

Once you forward your first campaign mailing onto us, we’ll send you an email back with instructions on how to sign up if you want to see exactly how that message might have been targetting you.

The privacy details are easy to explain: We’re going to ask you for personal information so we can understand how the messages relate to your demographic details, but those details won’t ever appear in public in a way that can be traced back to you, and we won’t use that information for anything other than the Message Machine. We won’t share it with anybody, either. If you sign up, we'll provide you with a profile page and store your data securely on our servers.

The more emails we get, the more confident we’ll be in our analysis. We’re going to work hard to analyze the material, but the real data gathering will be done by all of you.

I always go directly to candidate’s websites to donate so they don’t associate specific email plea tactics as successful.
    Last week, fed up with Obama’s daily emails demanding money, I clicked to unsubscribe. They gave me an option to receive fewer emails so I chose it. So far so good. I don’t want to be flown at contributor’s expense to have dinner with Barack. I want those contributions to buy dinner for hard working volunteers.
    If someone set up a secure donation site (clearing house) where contributions could be made to the candidates we choose, even allowing for monthly donations with a firm cutoff date, it would simplify the entire process.
  I’d also love to have the same clearinghouse option for donating to cause groups. Swamped with daily emails, I and about everyone else I know have frequently unsubscribed from worthy groups - and then automatically re-subscribed later when we sign an important petition….and then we get fed up with the clog and unsubscribe again.
    Another issue: Since when have we suddenly been forced to give out our phone numbers in order to donate??? Luckily I have caller ID so I can ignore calls when I want to.

great idea! it’s about time the media realize that TV ads are not the only way campaigns talk to (or yell at ) voters.

I used to do something similar with printed mail years ago but ended up quitting doing so because the mail has been getting so awful, especially in so-called ‘tolerant’ San Francisco. also expensive - the cost for postage is far higher than the cost of printing something nowadays!

Maybe it’s my server, or maybe yours is overloaded, but I recieve a message saying “problem sending, please try again later” on aol. If you are not getting responses check into it. ?

Japheth Cleaver

May 30, 2012, 3:19 p.m.

Are you focusing strictly on content, or are you looking at headers as well? Either way, would forwarding as an attachment be more useful to you?

Recently I unsubscribed from all emails from Democrats, Obama, the White House, etc. I’m sick of being asked to contribute to people and organizations that appear to have betrayed their promises and our trust.  It wasn’t easy, and it seems I had to unsubscribe from Pelosi, Michelle, and a number of others individually. Obama’s campaign was the first time I ever donated to a political party, and it will be the last. I don’t even know how they all got my email anyway. I still go to to sign petitions.

B. Rutgers: are you sending to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) ? We have been receiving emails, but I’ll check the spam folders.

Japheth Cleaver: a simple forward from an email client will do. We’re not all that interested in the headers at the moment.

Did you bother asking the Obama or Romney HQ how they target people?

ken: You’re kidding, right?

I’d LOVE to let them know..  they LOSE my vote with a second phone call.. after I’ve told them.. to REMOVE my name from their list.  We are getting up to SIX calls a day.. it’s getting ridiculous.  HELP!  I hate robocalls.

Are you all *sure* you want me to forward *all* the fund-raising e-mails?  I’ve already sent today’s batch, without incident.  But there will be more some days with more, probably no fewer than this until after the November elections.  And two e-mail accounts receive such mails, so I’ll try hard not to send duplicates… unless you want me to.

Are you *sure*?

JoAnne Norton

May 30, 2012, 8:01 p.m.

You mentioned Obama. If you had mentioned Romney or Scott Walker, I would do it.

Bel Campbell: Yes please send all the emails you receive—your email accounts may even be receiving multiple versions of the same email—our system will handle duplicates.

JoAnne Norton: Our last interactive focused on the Obama campaign’s emails, this new app will handle Romney emails as well as any presidential PACs, for right now we are focusing on presidential campaigns and party communications.

Training for well-informed citizens (read: thinkers, readers) could be K-12 years of increasingly sophisticated discourse analysis (easily euphemised as “language arts”, “communication skills”) which today seems available only at the undergraduate level: the kind of stuff applicable to commercial ads, political speech, not to mention a great deal of popular humor,  requiring a fair sensitivity fo figures of speech and a good sprinkling of elementary logic.  Nothing too heavy, really,
only for teachers with wit, a good sense of humor, light-hearted, and in love with ideas, especially those who abhor that time-honored cop-out “It all depends on how you look at it.”

If you are tired of getting phone calls, give them someone else’s number. Say, Dan Quayle’s

I don’t think Ken’s idea of asking the campaigns would work (partly because it’s highly secretive information, partly because it’s probably handled by an outside contractor to supply plausible deniability), but roping in an advertiser or professional campaigner might not be a bad idea.  They may not know the details, but could outline in broad strokes what may be most worth looking for.

Something you may find slightly lacking in the project in the end (or maybe that part doesn’t interest anybody but me) is what information they have on their target audience.  When you donate, they undoubtedly guess your political leanings and socioeconomic status by your address or telephone number.  But filling out a form where you identify your gender, income, family size, and so forth may completely change how they treat you.

If it was me, I’d also be looking at the payment habits of the donors, where available.  How they paid, where they paid, the last time they paid, and how frequently (and if it has changed) would be very high on my list of targetting criteria.

I don’t see the problem in a Presidential campaign customizing messages to fit different audiences. Sound like good communication skills. What is the issue for ProPublica?

I am a marketing scientist (MS) and can tell you the targeting is very straightforward. One good reference would be the book The Big Sort. It shows how we have clustered ourselves into pockets of identical groupings. Thus any MS armed with your address or zip can quickly include MSA, voting records and other public data and be 95% sure of your income, family size, marital status, geopolitical standing, and the amount of money you spend at Wal*Mart. YOU have made it that easy.

I never answer polls or even tell them my zip code at the store. I never get unwanted e-mails from politicians or marketers. I figure any information they are not required to have from me by law is information I can charge them for. Few are willing to pay to know your zip code.

Here’s the twist you probably didn’t think of: if they know your name and the location where you made contact, i.e. a store, they can reverse lookup you with public records. How people with your name (and credit card) live in your neighbourhood? That’s how creepy the game is. And it is a game: figuring out who you are with a high degree of probability.

Armed with a computer, it is possible to track people easily because they leave digital footprints everywhere.

My advice: stay off the internet and use cash.

Seriously people, I am having trouble with the concept of ordinary everyday people donating money to a bunch of zillionares who clearly care very little for your welfare, socially or economically. In Australia we leave monetary donations to political parties to those who will benefit most from them…Big Business.

Any e-mail from someone I don’t know, especially Obama, Romney, etc. I delete immediately.  I listen to no ads.  I do read a lot and there are many topics of each that I dislike.  So far I have figured out that these politicians all agree when it comes to something like the NDAA, Patriot Act, etc. but when it comes to something for the people, they blame each other and we end up with nothing or something very diluted!

Thank you.  Pandering is getting only worse as candidates can target individuals in private but unlike the wealthy it is a one way message.  Private lies are the most dangerous.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Buying Your Vote

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data

ProPublica is following the money and exploring campaign issues you won't read about elsewhere.

Get Updates

Our Hottest Stories