Is primetime polarized?

As research into voter preferences gets ever more sophisticated, it’s a natural that viewer choice would start to be an indicator of partisan stripes.

It’s more of a curiosity given the huge outlay for political ad spending each cycle, with more dollars shifting into primetime for candidates and issue ads, and an environment in which it’s harder to figure out how to reach voters.

Using set-top box data from subscribers who opt in, TiVo collects data linking TV viewing habits with party affiliation, which the company’s VP of advertising and research sales Tara Maitra says can be “quite advantageous for political campaigns in helping them more effectively target a desired audience.”

Evan Tracey, founder and president of the Campaign Media Analysis Group, says these days of hyper media consumption can put a premium on not only collecting but also connecting the data and putting the message in front of voters.

While it’s not hard to discern who will watch Bill O’Reilly vs. who will watch Rachel Maddow, what is a bit surprising is that there may be a divide even when it comes to seemingly similar procedural dramas.

For instance, a recent survey of 1,000 respondents on the site of market research firm YouGov showed that the differences extend to even “NCIS” and “CSI: Miami,” both procedural dramas on CBS, and “yet, partisans somehow manage to sort themselves into shows in a systematic way,” wrote Lynn Vavreck, associate professor of political science at UCLA, who conducted the survey. Republicans are the predominant audience for “NCIS,” and Democrats make up the lion’s share of the audience for “CSI: Miami.” There’s similar partisan skewing for “The Mentalist” (Democrats) and “Criminal Minds” (Republicans).

Vavreck’s take? “Democrats like the shows that take place in Miami and California; Republicans like the shows that take place in Virginia. I wouldn’t stake my Ph.D. on it, but it isn’t a pattern I would have expected a priori,” she wrote.

She cautions that more research with a larger sample of shows needs to be done, but “what I think is important are the implications for campaign advertising and outreach.”

Some of her findings were borne out in another pre-election study last fall by the New York Times, the Campaign Media Analysis Group and National Media which showed that in the most recent midterm elections, Republicans turned to football, “NCIS,” “Criminal Minds” and other crime shows, while Democrats focused on sitcoms like “30 Rock” and “Two and a Half Men” (read into the latter what you will), in addition to relationship dramas like “Brothers and Sisters.”

Both parties, however, seem to advertise on “Dancing With the Stars” at equal rates. That show drew the most political spots.

While there’s more data connecting viewing with political preference, whether that data is actually being used is another question. The tendency has been for candidates to target their ads toward swing voters who have a high likelihood of voting, as opposed to target to mobilizing the base.

As U. of Rochester’s Mitchell Lovett and Michael Peress point out in their research study, “Targeting Political Advertising on Television,” “Candidates place ads on the types of shows that are expected to have high (voter) turnout rates among their viewers.”

As Election Day nears, the mentality of a campaign becomes about reaching undecided voters in as many ways as possible. What’s more, recent cycles have shown that pool of undecideds shrinking earlier in the cycle, Tracey says. And with so much demand for airtime in the final weeks, candidates have less choice in inventory, and the pressure is on to gobble up time before rivals do, he says.

Targeted research “is not for a second going to change that dynamic,” he says. “In the last 30 days, it is still going to be carpet bombing vs. smart bombing.”