"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.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.
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.