After the 2000 presidential campaign, strategists for US President George W. Bush came to a startling realization: Democrats watch more television than Republicans.
So by buying millions of dollars worth of television advertising time, Republicans were spending their money on audiences that tended to vote Democratic.
What to do? With the luxury of four years until the next election, the Bush team examined voters' television-viewing habits and cross-referenced them with surveys of voters' political and lifestyle preferences.
This led to an unusual step for a presidential campaign: It cut the proportion of money that it put into broadcast television and diverted more to niche cable channels and radio, where it could more precisely reach its target audience.
While advertisers of commercial products have been heading to cable for years, presidential campaigns have generally relied on the reach of broadcast television to try to influence the widest possible audience.
But the Bush team's micro-target strategy could change all that, making an enormous difference to cable channels and networks as they vie for the escalating amount of money in politics.
Candidates, political parties and independent groups at all levels of government spent at least US$1.6 billion on television commercials this year, more than double the US$771 million they spent in 2000, according to the nonpartisan Alliance for Better Campaigns. At least US$600 million of this year's total went to the presidential election alone, more than twice the amount spent in 2000.
Kenneth Goldstein, director of the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which analyzes political advertising, said that the Bush campaign's use of targeted data and its exploitation of cable was likely to be the beginning of a trend, particularly as advertisers pursue new ways of reaching consumers using technology like text-messaging and cellphones.
"We're talking very, very small effects, but we live in a time when small effects can be decisive," Goldstein said, citing Bush's 537-vote victory in Florida in 2000, which catapulted him into the Oval Office.
Donny Deutsch, the New York advertising expert, said that now, "the selling of a candidate is no different from the smart media buying for toothpaste and automobiles, especially as people fragment their media habits."
As the Bush team analyzed the data, stark differences between the viewing habits of Republicans and Democrats quickly emerged. The channels with the highest proportion of Democrats were Court TV and the Game Show Network; for Republicans, Speedvision and the Golf Channel.
During the week, Republicans switch off the tube earlier than Democrats do. (Republicans who stay up are more likely to tune in to Jay Leno, while Democrats flock to David Letterman.)
Such revelations convinced the Bush team to alter its media-buying strategy. In 2000, the campaign spent 95 percent of its media budget on network television; this year, that dropped to 70 percent.
The campaign spent no money on national cable channels in 2000; this year it spent US$20 million. It spent little on radio in 2000; this year it spent US$12 million, much of it going to religious, talk and country music programming.
"This year, we reached a wider audience of potential Republicans than we did in 2000," said Matthew Dowd, a top strategist for Bush's re-election campaign.