Political candidates view us as sets of data points

By Denny Wilkins

I earn between $50,000 and $75,000 a year. I have three degrees. I teach at a small Catholic liberal arts university. I own several cameras. I have two vehicles, one four-wheel-drive, the other high mileage. I belong to two environmental organizations. I commute more than 10 miles to work. I contribute to three non-profit organizations. I am single. I buy clothes from L.L. Bean. I collect Rotring pens and pencils. I play blues guitar. I read science and detective fiction, purchased mostly from Barnes & Noble and Amazon. I have two iPods, two computers, and one TV. I have several credit cards. I drink beer. I once owned a handgun. I no longer have a mortgage. I have voted since 1964 as an Independent or Democrat.

To presidential candidates, I am not Denny Wilkins, an individual human being: I am a set of data points, one of about nearly two hundred million sets of data points collected by both the Democratic and Republican national committees. They are interested in me only because I am an eligible voter — so candidates, political parties, and non-profits collect about 3,000 data points about me – and those of tens of millions of eligible voters. Democratic and Republican presidential candidates will base their direct-mail, push-poll, robo-call and volunteers-knocking-on-your-door messages on computerized analyses of me — and you — as data. I will be micro-targeted by candidates’ campaign organizations for the sole purpose of producing a vote for a candidate.

Candidates who decide to run for office under the aegis of the two principal national parties have access to comprehensive databases of American voters. So how’d we all end up as sets of ones and zeroes?

We vote. The national political parties collect state voter files.

We need licenses to drive a vehicle, fish, hunt, cut hair, and run a business. The parties collect those public records.

We get counted by the federal government. The Census Bureau asks numerous nosey questions about our ethnicity, occupations, neighborhoods, incomes, family size, value and size of homes, rent vs. own, commuting distances, etc. The parties collect those records.

We’re suckers for direct marketing. We buy stuff from mailings that show up in our mailboxes. We buy from the various home shopping channels littering satellite and cable television. We even send in those cheesy “warranty” cards after filling out the demographic and marketing preference surveys. The political parties buy those records.

We buy lots of stuff on the Internet and everywhere else. The parties buy those records from commercial data-mining companies.

We are relentlessly surveyed. We get phones calls at dinner asking, “How do you feel about X?” We answer just to get off the phone. Someone shows up at our door, clipboard in hand: “I represent X. How do you feel about Y?” Businesses we frequent send us “consumer satisfaction surveys.” Even our hospitals and doctors survey us about their services. The political parties buy all that information, and much of it clearly identifies our social, political, and religious beliefs.

The parties cross-index all that information. They do this to determine the likelihood of how I will vote; they micro-target me to either reinforce a tendency or counteract it. Even if you have never voted before, the political parties can be remarkably accurate in predicting your voting tendencies.

The content of the glossy brochures you’ll receive from the presidential candidates, the actual words used by a campaign volunteer calling on you at your home, the precise wording  of the robo-calls and the campaign texts you’ll receive almost daily as primaries near will be based on a computer analysis of hundreds of data points about you.

Remember, politicians are fundamentally advertisers with a message to sell. Anything you can imagine an advertiser doing to promote a good or service a politician can and will do — because politicians offer themselves as a packaged good or service for voters to buy. Micro-targeting voters allows campaigns to narrowly match specific parts of that package to resonate most effectively with the demographic and ideological propensities of individual voters. This is how campaigns operate. This is the behavior that candidates engage in to persuade us to vote for them. They precisely target us with highly specific messages.

All these computer-driven database analyses of likely voters allow campaigns to be remarkably efficient and effective in their messaging strategies. Too few volunteers to canvas a particular congressional district? Screen the database for voters likely to resonate with your message. Reaching voters with targeted messages doesn’t cost much — a campaign can reach the four million people in the city of Seattle for about $150.

Candidates buy many millions of robo-calls during the early caucus and primary states. Add the presidential general election contest to House, Senate and gubernatorial races, and the number of robo-calls could reach hundreds of millions by Election Day — all generated through the highly sophisticated data-mining and -crunching techniques used by the national parties.

Money usually is in short supply as campaigns wear on. It costs too much to poll all states and congressional districts to determine where to spend money.

So politicians’ campaign apparatuses build models based on past voting history and the data collected from you and me to pinpoint districts where voters seem to prefer their candidate.

Many critics of such campaign machinations decry them as Orwellian or an invasion of privacy. Perhaps, but so much of the data campaigns use we surrendered voluntarily. We opened this Pandora’s box by being so free with details about our lives, beliefs, and consumer and political decisions. Stop participating in polls. Shred the warranty cards. Demand better protection of your private data from the companies you buy stuff from. (Yes, I know … a drop in the bucket, too little, too late.)

The press rarely writes about such computerized campaign techniques. It’s too complicated, too technical, too … boring. It’s a hard story to cover because campaign aides don’t wish to talk about this seamier side of politics. Aides don’t want stories portraying their candidates as numbers-driven rather than engaged face to face with voters in a made-for-TV town hall setting.

The press wants conflict. It drives ratings. So, rather than examine data mining closely, Wolf Blitzer & Co. say, “Your opponent called you a moronic flip-flopper. How do you respond?” Then they take that response and trot back to get another rebuttal. Such is the sophistication of presidential campaign coverage in these days of media cutbacks.

Our candidates tolerate this, this rudeness of data mining practiced in as much secrecy as possible in their names. (Our candidates also tolerate behind a cloak of deniability independently funded splinter groups operating on a candidate’s behalf with the candidate chiding the group’s behaviors and demanding, “Stop it. *wink, wink*”)

In November 2024 someone will be elected president.

But consider this: The eventual winner will spend hundreds of millions of dollars (raised from the usual suspects among retired folks and those in the legal, real estate, investment and securities, pharmaceuticals and finance industries) on data mining and crunching to maximize electoral votes.

What reason has any candidate given us to believe that his or her adherence to such manipulation of the electorate will cease after the election? Presumably he or she wants a another term.

And what reason has any candidate given us that data mining and crunching will not be used to determine voter acceptability of public policy proposals by his or her administration?

I wish Wolf would ask the candidates about that in the next presidential “debate.” Once again: Past behavior indicates future performance.

Denny Wilkins is a professor in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University.

Categories: Uncategorized

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