To each his own niche

Mass-market campaigning is as passe as mass-market retailing. Politicians and pollsters increasingly slice and dice the electorate into demographic niches and tailor their messages to narrow groups of voters. Who are the 'soccer moms' of 2012?

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    Pedestrians walk through Wall Street in New York City .
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We live in a world that prizes e pluribus more than unum. Most of us bristle when told “if we make an exception for you, we’d have to make one for everybody.” Judge us by where we live, what we drive, or how we dress, walk, talk, or look? We may not be flinty pioneers, but we are definitely not part of the vast, like-minded herd. 

Marketing experts know we cherish our individualism. They have developed ever more sophisticated ways to track our interests and tailor messages to our wants and needs. When you think about it, though, what they are doing still amounts to lumping us in with a crowd. It’s just that there are thousands of boutique crowds now rather than a mass market. You might be an extreme commuter, one of the working retired, an urban locavore, a young knitter who posts on Pinterest. And there might be a million of you.

Ten thousand niche markets have replaced the old mass market. These niches need not be large to pack a punch. A few thousand people can jam city hall plaza, spread the word about a hot restaurant, or spark an online rush toward a social media site only the cool kids now visit.

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“The world may be getting flatter, in terms of globalization, but it is occupied by 6 billion little bumps who do not have to follow the herd to be heard,” pollster and political strategist Mark Penn wrote in his 2007 book, “Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes.” 

Mr. Penn coined the term “soccer moms” in the mid-1990s when he helped secure that niche for President Clinton’s reelection. That was before the Internet birthed a hyper-niche America. So who are the soccer moms of 2012? Some of the demographics being mentioned this time around include “Medicare grandmas” concerned about health-care costs, underemployed Millennials digging out from college debt while living with their parents, Latino entrepreneurs far from border states, lapsed church-goers, even pet lovers (who may be dismayed or just amused that a certain candidate once made the family dog ride on the roof of the family car).

How will these and other niches vote in the US presidential election? In a Monitor cover story, Jennifer Skalka Tulumello goes behind the scenes with Gallup pollsters who are trying to determine what Americans are thinking. Large percentages have already decided how they will vote. The battleground is over undecideds in swing states such as Virginia, Colorado, and Wisconsin. Jennifer’s report examines the techniques, trends, and reliability of polling.

The 2012 electorate is vastly different from when George Gallup’s troops first went door to door. Campaigns now need exotic digital tools to find and motivate voters. But on the first Tuesday of November, a curious event will occur. Dot-moms and DIY dads, war veterans, public-sector workers, ex-urban retirees, small-town landlords, and millions more niche Americans will enter voting booths. For a single day, they will become a single mass market: a democracy. Out of many, one.

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