Beware the Smart Campaign
“I AM not a number. I am a free man!” was the famous cry of prisoner Number Six, who could never escape his Kafkaesque village on the 1960s television show “The Prisoner.” This is a prescient cry for an era when numbers follow us everywhere. Jim Messina, the victorious Obama campaign manager, probably agrees that you are not a number. That’s because you are four numbers.
The Obama campaign assigned all potential swing-state voters one number, on a scale of 1 to 100, that represented the likelihood that they would support Mr. Obama, and another number for the prospect that they would show up at the polls. A third metric evaluated the odds that an Obama supporter who was an inconsistent voter could be nudged to the polls, and a fourth score estimated how persuadable someone was by a conversation on a particular issue (which was, of course, also determined by crunching more numbers).
Mr. Messina is understandably proud of his team, which included an unprecedented number of data analysts and social scientists. As a social scientist and a former computer programmer, I enjoy the recognition my kind are getting. But I am nervous about what these powerful tools may mean for the health of our democracy, especially since we know so little about it all.
For all the bragging on the winning side — and an explicit coveting of these methods on the losing side — there are many unanswered questions. What data, exactly, do campaigns have on voters? How exactly do they use it? What rights, if any, do voters have over this data, which may detail their online browsing habits, consumer purchases and social media footprints?
How did Mr. Obama win? The message and the candidate matter, of course; it’s easier to persuade voters if your policies are more popular and your candidate more appealing. But a modern winning campaign requires more. As Mr. Messina explained, his campaign made an “unparalleled” $100 million investment in technology, demanded “data on everything,” “measured everything” and ran 66,000 computer simulations every day. In contrast, Mitt Romney’s campaign’s data operations were lagging, buggy and nowhere as sophisticated. A senior Romney aide described the shock he experienced in seeing the Obama campaign turn out “voters they never even knew existed.” And that kind of ability matters: while Mr. Obama did win decisively, the size of his lead in four states that determined the outcome, Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado, was about 400,000 votes — or about 1.2 percent of the eligible voters.
The confluence of marketing and politics goes back a long way. A blizzard of direct mail engineered by political consultants is credited with defeating President Harry S. Truman’s national health care proposal after World War II. The new methods, however, are not just better direct mail. Noxious TV ads and slick mailers are like machetes compared with the scalpels of social-science-based big-data. The crude methods may still work to soften the ground and drown out other voices, but in the end they are still very big sticks. Sometimes they kill the patient — just ask swing-state voters about the TV ads they were bombarded with.
The scalpels, on the other hand, can be precise and effective in a quiet, un-public way. They take persuasion into a private, invisible realm. Misleading TV ads can be countered and fact-checked. A misleading message sent in just the kind of e-mail you will open or ad you will click on remains hidden from challenge by the other campaign or the media. Or someone who visits evangelical Web sites might be carefully shielded from messages about gay rights, and someone who has hostile views toward environmentalism may receive messages stroking that sentiment even if the broader campaign woos the green vote elsewhere.
What I really worry about, though, is that these new methods are more effective in manipulating people. Social scientists increasingly understand that much of our decision making is irrational and emotional. For example, the Obama campaign used pictures of the president’s family at every opportunity. This was no accident. The campaign field-tested this as early as 2007 through a rigorous randomized experiment, the kind used in clinical trials for medical drugs, and settled on the winning combination of image, message and button placement. I agree that his family is wonderful and his daughters are cute. But an increasing role of “likability” factors, which we now understand better how to manipulate, is not good for democracy.
These methods will also end up empowering better-financed campaigns. The databases are expensive, the algorithms are proprietary, the results of experiments by campaigns are secret, and the analytics require special expertise. The Democrats have an early advantage partly because academics and data analysts tend to be Democrats. Money will solve that problem. This will shift power in both parties even more toward the richer campaigns and may well be the final nail in the coffin of public financing for presidential campaigns.
What is to be done? Campaigns should make public every outreach message so we at least know what they are saying. These messages can be placed in a public database like campaign contributions so the other side can be aware of, and have the right to respond to, false claims. Political access to proprietary databases should be regulated to provide an even playing field.
I’m not claiming that the Obama campaign used these methods to mislead. However, the fact that the winning campaign’s “chief data scientist” was previously employed to “maximize the efficiency of supermarket sales promotions” does not thrill me. You should be worried even if your candidate is — for the moment — better at these methods. Democracy should not just be about how to persuade people to vote for one candidate over another by any means necessary.