Every time Nella Stevens logs on to her computer, ads for President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney follow her from site to site, dogging her every digital step as if begging for her vote.
“If I go to one site to research or I start Googling his views on things, then for the next day Obama just scrolls across my screen, and the same thing for Romney,” said Stevens, 52, of Charlotte, N.C. “I started noticing it, and it’s very funny after a while. I was like, ‘This is very strange.’ ”
Stevens is an undecided registered voter in a swing state. Both campaigns would love to find that one issue or argument that will finally get to her, and they’re hoping that data collected from her Web browser and mobile devices can help.
Political campaigns are taking advantage of the same data-mining and consumer-profiling techniques that retailers commonly use to customize ads for certain audiences.
“You can say, ‘I want to reach a registered Democrat who has voted in three of the last four elections with an age 30-50, with an income of $50,000-plus and target ads only to people who are registered and exactly in that population,” said Jim Walsh, a senior partner at DSPolitical, an online advertising network that works with Democratic candidates and liberal organizations.
Ad agencies and data management firms say this "microtargeting" gives campaigns more bang for their bucks, and ensures that they reach the right people with messages tailored to their interests. But privacy advocates say they’re alarmed.
"Powerful interests across the political divide are compiling comprehensive digital dossiers on individual citizens," said Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Digital Democracy in Washington. "If this was the FBI or national security agency, there would be a huge uproar."
Chester worries that politicians who get elected using such technologies will be reluctant to press for greater scrutiny and regulation of data brokers, the companies that compile personal information about consumers and sell it to marketers – or to campaigns.
“This is the way that marketing is done in the 21st century,” Chester said. “ . . . Campaigns have to use it, but that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any rules.”
This year, online election advertising is projected to top $160 million, eight times more than the $20 million spent in 2008, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade group of media and technology companies.
Presidential candidates have spent at least $75 million on Internet media in this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
Romney’s and Obama’s campaigns pledge to protect voters’ private information.
“We do not provide any personal information to outside entities and we stipulate that third party partners not use data collected on the site for other purposes,” Obama campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher said in an email.
“We are committed to ensuring that all of our voter outreach is governed by the highest ethical standards,” Romney spokesman Ryan Williams said in an email.
Walsh’s company, DSPolitical, is just one of many start-ups that sprang up over the past few years to help campaigns deliver finely honed digital ads. Targeted Victory and CampaignGrid, leading firms that work with Republicans, didn’t respond to requests for interviews.
Walsh said DSPolitical partnered with the Democratic database Catalist to match a voter file against 600 million browser cookies, the tiny text files stored on users’ hard drives while visiting websites. A third-party data partner brings together the information from the file and the cookies to identify voter profiles.
Stripped of names, addresses, Social Security numbers and other personal identifying information, the profiles are divided into 42 categories that range from age to gender to voting history to race, Walsh said. DSPolitical’s clients then choose which categories to target with which ads.
“For the first time, candidates can send a message to specific portions of their voters that are specific to what their issues and interests are, to what concerns them, and that is amazing,” Walsh said.
Voter privacy is protected because the files DSPolitical receives from the third party are anonymous, he said.
That depends on one’s definition of anonymous, said Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication and the author of the book “The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth.”
“Just because they don’t know your name, if you live online and you are being tagged or categorized or profiled online, what’s the difference if they call me Joe Turow or 43695?” he said.
Most people see their political beliefs and activities as even more private than their shopping or reading habits, he added.
A survey published by Turow and other academics at the University of Pennsylvania in July found that 86 percent of Americans “did not want political advertising tailored to their interests.”
“I have no question that the idea of relevant advertising is not a bad thing necessarily,” Turow said. “ . . . What I think is problematical is that it’s all done under the hood without people’s true understanding of it, without their giving permission.”
Although the technology has changed, the concept of microtargeting is nothing new in politics, said Mark Nevins, a consultant for Missouri 4th Congressional District Democratic candidate Teresa Hensley and several other campaigns.
“Back in the old days, when we used to turn out that dot-matrix run with blue and green paper and big binder books, then microtargeting was really microtargeting because you were talking about plucking, say, 10 Democrats out of a sea of 100 Republicans,” Nevins said.The idea of using data mining to profile voters fascinates Nevins, but he hasn’t seen any evidence it’s more effective than the targeting that campaigns traditionally did using demographic information culled from offline sources.
“The people who have a career out of that kind of modeling are mass marketers,” Nevins said. “ . . . There exists a whole database of information about you. They purchase that data and then use it for mass marketing. You can do that, and that’s great for selling Yankee Candles. But when you’re talking about connecting with voters on something that’s far more personal . . . there’s no proof that that has any real effect.”
David Helling of The Kansas City Star contributed to this report.