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Political Microtargeting: What Data Crunchers Did for Obama
In his presidential inauguration speech, President Barack Obama spoke a word rarely expressed- data -referencing indicators of economic and other crises. It is not surprising that the word data was spoken in his inauguration speech because capturing and analyzing data has been crucial to Obama's rise to power. Throughout Obama's historic campaign he used the Internet not only for social networking and fund raising, but also to identify potential swing voters. Obama's team carefully monitored contested states and congressional districts, because 1,000 to 2,000 voters could prove decisive-meaning the focus was on only a tiny fraction of the voting public. Both political parties hired technology wizards to help sift through the mountains of consumer and demographic details to recognize these important voters.
Spotlight Analysis, a Democratic consultancy, used political microtargeting to analyze neighborhood details, family sizes, and spending patterns to categorize every American of voting age-175 million of us-into 10 "values tribes." Individual tribe members do not necessarily share the same race, religion, or income bracket, but they have common mind-sets about political issues: God, community, responsibility, opportunity. Spotlight identified a particular morally guided (but not necessarily religious) tribe of some 14 million voters that it dubbed "Barn Raisers." Barn Raisers comprise many races, religions, and ethnic groups and around 40 percent of Barn Raisers favor Democrats and 27 percent favor Republicans. Barn Raisers are slightly less likely to have a college education than Spotlight's other swing groups. They are active in community organizations, are ambivalent about government, and care deeply about "playing by the rules" and "keeping promises," to use Spotlight's definitions. Spotlight believed that the Barn Raisers held the key to the race between Obama and his Republican challenger, Arizona Senator John McCain.
Not typically seen outside of such corporate American icons as Google, Amazon, and eBay, political microtargeting, which depends on data, databases, and data analysis techniques, is turning political parties into sophisticated, intelligent, methodical machines. In nanoseconds, computers sort 175 million voters into segments and quickly calculate the potential that each individual voter has to swing from red or purple to blue or vice versa.
For some, political microtargeting signals the dehumanization of politics. For others, this type of sophisticated analysis is a highly efficient way of pinpointing potential voters. For example, analyzing a voter in Richmond, Virginia, traditionally simply identifies the number of school-age children, type of car, zip code, magazine subscriptions, and mortgage balance. But data crunching could even indicate if the voter has dogs or cats. (Cat owners lean slightly for Democrats, dog owners trend Republican.) After the analysis, the voter is placed into a political tribe, and analyzers can draw conclusions about the issues that matter to this particular voter. Is that so horrible
For generations, governments lacked the means to study individual behaviors and simply placed all citizens into enormous groupings such as Hispanics, Jews, union members, hunters, soccer moms, etc. With the use of sophisticated databases and data analysis techniques, companies such as Spotlight can group individuals based more on specific behavior and choices and less on the names, colors, and clans that mark us from birth.
When Spotlight first embarked on its research, the company interviewed thousands of voters the old-fashioned way. At first, the Barn Raisers did not seem significant and the tribe represented about 9 percent of the electorate. However, when Spotlight's analysts dug deeper, they discovered that Barn Raisers stood at the epicenter of America's political swing. In 2004, 90 percent of them voted for President Bush, but then the group's political leanings shifted, with 64 percent of them saying they voted for Democrats in the 2006 election. Spotlight surveys showed that political scandals, tax-funded boondoggles like Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere, and the botched job on Hurricane Katrina sent them packing.
Suddenly, Spotlight identified millions of potential swing voters. The challenge then became locating the swing voters by states. For this, the company analyzed the demographics and buying patterns of the Barn Raisers they surveyed personally. Then it began correlating data from the numerous commercially available databases with matching profiles. By Spotlight's count, this approach nailed Barn Raisers three times out of four. So Democrats could bet that at least three-quarters of them would be likely to welcome an appeal stressing honesty and fair play.
Still Swing Voters
It is still undetermined to what extent Spotlight's strategy worked, and the company has not correlated the Barn Raisers to their actual votes. However, it is reasonable to presume that amid that sea of humanity stretched out before Obama on Washington's Mall on January 20, 2008, at least some were moved by microtargeted appeals. And if Obama and his team fail to honor their mathematically honed vows, the Barn Raisers may abandon them in droves. They are swing voters, after all.
In terms of political microtargeting, explain the following sentence: It is never possible to have all of the information required to make a 100 percent accurate prediction.