< Personal Data and the Election

Transcript

Friday, January 06, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:

Okay, at the start of the show I lied. We'll sort of cover Iowa now, but only to observe that the race there was not waged as much with TV attack ads as has been portrayed in the press.

The 100,000 or so caucusers were not an anonymous mass reached remotely through the impersonal blue light of the boob tube. For the most part, they were known to the competing campaigns by name, and by a whole lot of personally identifying information.

Modern national politics is not only retail, it's online retail, based on all sorts of data individuals have left behind, knowingly and otherwise.

Michael Duhaime's job is precisely to crunch such data. He's a GOP strategist who served as the political director for the Republican National Committee and who led the Get Out the Vote organization for Bush/Cheney in 2004. He says you'd be shocked if you knew what's happening with your personal information.

MICHAEL DUHAIME:

There are data warehouses in this country that basically just buy and sell information about your consumer history, and it's all publicly available, and it's all completely legal within privacy laws.

There's census information about your neighborhood and what your – what your income levels may be or education levels may be, whether or not you own or rent your home, whether or not you have children in your home, what age group are your children. These things are important when you start thinking about things like education, for example.

There are predictive models you can use. For example, you can look at somebody who drives a big red Chevy pickup truck versus somebody who maybe drives a, a hybrid or a Prius, and maybe you can extrapolate something of the person who drives a Prius, how they care about the environment.

There might be something, if you get Field & Stream Magazine, maybe you feel differently about the Second Amendment. There's all these different types of things. No one of them is any kind of, of magic bullet, but what these very smart data warehouse folks do is assign numerical values to all these different pieces of information. Then they overlay the political information on top of that, from polling and other things, and they  essentially try to predict what issues you want to hear about.

BOB GARFIELD:

There's much more granular data that campaigns can act upon, maybe because one way or another I, as the intermittent or independent voter, has left my name or email address or something with someone connected to the campaign?

MICHAEL DUHAIME:

Sure. If you've ever gone to a campaign's website, most likely they've got your information, or at least your email address. Certainly if you've ever donated money online, they're gonna keep that information and [LAUGHS] continue to ask for money.

Broadcast television ads are still hugely important to campaigns, but if you go to their website and you check out where, for example, a candidate's stand on tax policy, the next time you're on a site about monster trucks you might see an ad for this [LAUGHS] candidate and their tax policies.

What campaigns are doing now is in many ways mimicking what has been done very well in the private sector. And, quite frankly, the campaigns now do it so well the private sector's coming back around trying to learn from the campaigns.

BOB GARFIELD:

For many, many years I've observed the development of data mining in the commercial world. Something I see happen again and again and again is that marketers begin to forget that the data points are not just data points but actual live human beings, you know, with DNA and opinions and moods and feelings. Is there not some, you know, grave risk that a huge political apparatus built around data will, you know, sort of completely lose the thread that, you know, we're talking about live human beings in voting booths?

MICHAEL DUHAIME:

One of the things that is done to try to do take that into account is all the data is one thing, but there's an awful lot of polling that goes into this as well and that is overlaid on top of this political data that tries to figure out how people are supporting but also how people are feeling.

Campaigns and elections do not take place, you know, in, in some computer laboratory somewhere. This effort is to try to get a bit of an advantage to talk to people about the issues that they care about in a way that they would like to hear, but it is not some sort of panacea that is going to just automatically win you any election. Ultimately, it's going to come down to the candidates and the candidates' ability to connect with the voters.

BOB GARFIELD:

There's one final thing I want to ask you, and it has to do with fundamental democracy. If it's true that SuperPACs and corporate voices and big money and the, the so-called special interests have a disproportionate voice in campaigns that, you know, perhaps drowns out others is it data that will put the power back in the hands of the individual voter?

MICHAEL DUHAIME:

If there are people who are willing to, to use it and harness it, because it is much more efficient and ultimately much cheaper than grand television advertising, especially when you get into the bigger, more expensive media markets like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago that are, well, prohibitive in terms of how expensive they are for the average campaign or candidate; I do think this data will enable individuals in campaigns to have a greater impact. But much of this technology used on both sides is designed to motivate people to vote.

We still have a large number people in this country who don't vote. And as much as people may want to moan about the influence of outside special interests and others, their interests would be diluted if more people voted.

BOB GARFIELD:

All right. Mike, thanks so much.

MICHAEL DUHAIME:

Thank you very much.

BOB GARFIELD:

Michael Duhaime is a Republican political strategist and managing director of Mercury Public Affairs.