January 14, 2008

Power Mining

Last month, James Verini had a great piece in Vanity Fair about Aristotle, Inc., one of the premier political data-mining firms in the country. (As Richard Viguerie tells it, "It's not just that their list [containing detailed information on 175 million voters] is good—they're considered to have the only list."):
"What we do is help a campaign run more and more like an effective business," [Aristotle CEO John Aristotle] Phillips says as he types on his laptop, bringing up on a large projection screen the profile of an actual voter in Atlanta, whom we'll call John Smith.

Phillips hits a button and up pops Smith's basic information—address, phone number, etc. A click of the mouse brings more personal information—his photograph, his age and occupation, the names of his adult family members, his party affiliation and approximate income. Another click summons the exact amounts of political donations he has made. Phillips clicks once more, and a kind of molecular model appears on-screen, showing every political donor and potentially influential person Smith is linked to, in Atlanta and beyond, with dozens of interlocking nodes. Each node leads to the profile of another voter, about whom Aristotle knows just as much or more.
Back in 1999, Dana Milbank wrote a TNR piece on the dawn of the "customized campaign," describing Aristotle as a tiny startup working with AOL to "create ads that appear only on the screens of those computer users the campaigns wish to reach." Since then, the firm's matured considerably: playing a starring role in Bush's '04 win (allowing the campaign, for instance, march into union neighborhoods in Ohio and locate voters upset about gay marriage); tilting the 2001 mayoral race in Los Angeles for James Hahn at the last minute (really); and helping Viktor Yuschenko uncover election fraud in Ukraine's 2004 election.

Sadly, we never learn which candidates in '08 have the best micro-targeting shops (most of Aristotle's clients are Republicans, though I believe that many top Dems now use Catalist). We do know, however, that techniques have advanced far beyond what happened in the last election: "Obama and other candidates now have the ability to custom-tailor cable-television ads down to the Zip Code in Iowa, or send a canvasser to a voter's doorstep armed with a computer-generated picture of that person's political personality." Freaky. Of course, those all-seeing databases do raise concerns about privacy and "political redlining"—campaigns are better able to ignore voters who either don't donate or vote in dependable blocs.

One interesting bit comes when Phillips explains why he's so secretive and rarely blabs to the press: "It doesn't benefit our clients for them to see a newspaper story about how great our technology is. Every campaign that we work with wants you to believe that it's shoe leather that wins the race, or great issues, or the love of the people, but the fact of the matter is a lot of it is the nitty-gritty organization."
-- Brad Plumer 10:55 PM || ||