Opinion and Return on Technology

ALTOM: Political parties use data mining to value you

February 11, 2012

Political candidates today live in a huge fishbowl that is more transparent than ever before, especially those who run for president. We quickly find out the finest details of their lives, probably facts the candidates themselves have long forgotten. But here’s a sobering thought: They might know more about us than we know about them.

Data mining is a fact of life today. As databases grow fat on information about us, they become extremely valuable for everything from designing product shelving in supermarkets to predicting ticket sales for professional sports teams. It was inevitable that political parties would get into the game, too.

Gathering political intelligence is nearly as old as parties themselves. Organized polling isn’t quite that old, but it goes back a ways.

The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian did one of the first recorded straw polls in 1824, which showed John Quincy Adams trailing Andrew Jackson. The infamous and erroneous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline in the Chicago Tribune of 1948 wasn’t from an opinion poll, but a result of the peculiar set of circumstances that forced the Trib to go to press early, leading to its premature prediction. Polls, by contrast, have proven remarkably accurate over the decades.

But polls are still not accurate enough, because they try to predict behavior rather than follow it. Data collection is better because it reflects real behaviors. This is where data mining comes in. Mining isn’t just pulling out samples of data from the morass that is modern databases. It’s interpreting subtle patterns and drawing conclusions.

Companies such as Aristotle (www.aristotle.com) supply not only data, but also inferences from that data. (The name isn’t as precious as it sounds. The founder’s name is John Aristotle Phillips.) Like its competitors, Aristotle collects data from wherever it can—from credit sources, public records and readily available commercial lists. They have data on what kinds of things you buy and own as well as what you do for fun. Then they look for associations.

Evan Wyloge, writing for the AzCapitalTimes.com blog, says, for example, that, according to commercial databases, football fans are more likely to be Republican, while basketball fans are more likely Democrats. Owning a motorcycle indicates libertarian affiliation and gun ownership.

Magazine subscriptions are a gold mine of indicators. A subscription to Mother Jones marks one as decidedly liberal while Good Housekeeping indicates a preference for female candidates.

Republicans were the first to jump into marketing from databases, a practice known as “microtargeting.” They compiled a national database that eventually came to be called “Voter Vault.” The Democrats weren’t far behind with their own VoteBuilder, although both Republicans and Democrats have also made good use of the firm Catalist (www.catalist.com) as well as Aristotle.

The political databases can combine the kind of readily available data Aristotle compiles with data from political campaigns. Both Voter Vault and VoteBuilder, for example, keep track of how approachable individuals have been, such as whether they’ve been campaign volunteers or even allowed a yard sign to be erected on their properties. Once only the province of local party officials, this data is now aggregated upward into the national databases. Local races can use the data for their own microtargeting.

Microtargeting is being given some of the credit for having catapulted Barack Obama into the White House. One of a party’s biggest problems is getting likely voters out to the polls. Democrats in largely Republican states are frequently unmotivated, believing their votes don’t count for much. Microtargeting allows the parties to identify and target voters with leanings, if not outright stances, and get them motivated enough to vote.

Corporate marketing departments did this for years before politicians got serious about it. The Obama campaign collected vital data from visitors to MyBarackObama.com, a site that’s still in operation. It also made good use of other data-crunching companies. When likely voters were identified, they could be contacted in various ways, from phone calls to personal visits. They could have e-mails sent or fliers mailed to them. Perhaps for the first time, Democrats in a sea of Republican red might have communications sent right to their doors, tailored to their interests.

Worried about the environment? The campaign sends you a flier about what Obama’s doing for green energy. The economy? The flier talks about his plans to relieve unemployment. Such materials, urging immediate action, can turn a traditionally red state at least temporarily blue, as happened here in 2008.

Is this worrisome? I’m undecided. The Big Brother aspects of data mining and microtargeting are not reassuring if the government were to misuse that information to root out dissidents. But used properly, it can empower voters in ways never seen before, as they are made to feel special and valued. As always, democracy teeters between tyranny and populism. Technology merely erodes the balance point just a bit more.•

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Altom is an independent local technology consultant. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.

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