Presidential candidates use data mining to reach voters

Before the turn of the current millennium, political campaigning was largely based on polling. Presidential and legislative candidates’ operations would analyze data and formulate plans based on where they were popular and where they needed to improve in order to take office. Today, however, social sciences, particularly behavioral psychology, are having an influence on how campaigns are operated.

The Associated Press has learned that Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign is investing large sums of money into improved data mining and analysis techniques. Jack Gillum reports that, “The project employs strategies similar to those the business world uses to influence the way Americans shop and think. Now they’re being used to sway presidential elections.”

Romney’s campaign is employing the services of Buxton Customer Analytics, a company that is affiliated with Bain, the finance business once run by the Republican presidential nominee. Buxton takes in data from records and business reports and can produce “household level” analysis on purchasing, voting or other behaviors.

According to the company’s website, they serve organizations ranging from municipal governments and healthcare providers to financial institutions and restaurants. They collect their data by paying out for access to expensive databases of information collected about everything from voting history to credit ratings. The idea is that presidential elections, especially, are decided by turnout and by thin margins in so-called “swing-states.” Targeting individuals rather than ill-defined or scattered groups and getting their support is seen as key in the new political order. Voters, however, are not the only targets of data mining. With a record amount of funds expected to be raised in this election, finding donors who are willing to give even small amounts could be crucial.

Tom Buxton, the chief executive of the company, is confident in his business’s ability to deliver results for its clients. “I can look at data of any kind and say, ‘I want to know who that $100 donor could be.’ We can look at data of any kind.”

There are no records of payments from the campaign to Buxton, which could be an indication that Romney and his campaign wanted to keep the analytics company’s involvement a secret.

The Obama campaign is also making use of these new technologies and social science mechanisms to help increase voting and donating. Supporters of the Democratic candidate can connect to the so-called “Dashboard” where activists can link up and communicate with one another. Analysts have been impressed with the scale and sophistication of Obama’s efforts a well as Romney’s. “It’s all about the data this year and Obama has that … any small advantage could absolutely make the difference,” technology strategist Andrew Rasiej said to Politico.

For voters, this could have some uncomfortable implications. Though voters and donors are often more supportive of candidates to whom they feel a personal connection, they might be disturbed by the exacting level of detail candidates have about their personal lives.

Where politicians see opportunities to get people more involved and hopefully vote for them, many citizens are feeling wary of the invasive practices. With most Americans’ lives being increasingly lived in the realm of computers, however, the age of easy corporate access to personal information appears unlikely to fade away anytime soon.