Data wars target omni-present American voter | US presidential elections 2016: What do I need to know? | DW | 01.03.2016
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US elections 2016

Data wars target omni-present American voter

President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign blazed the trail on making the vote a fight over who knows the most about voters. That has far-reaching consequences, as Lars Gesing reports from Washington.

When Obama ran for re-election in 2012, his prospects of winning another four years in the Oval Office were in dire jeopardy. Many Americans complained the country was recovering too slowly from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Four years later, Obama is still the main tenant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The man to thank - or blame, depending on your political orientation - is Jim Messina, as many here in the American capital and the country's political chattering class believe.

Obama's geeky 2012 campaign manager had an almost ubiquitous fondness for data collection. And so, to make sure his boss would brush off Republican Mitt Romney's challenge, Messina created a data behemoth. His goal: Find, archive and organize whatever available information about potential Obama voters in order to get them to donate money to the campaign and eventually go out to vote for his boss.

The result? A few months down the road Team Obama had collected up to 800 individual points of information about a single voter. Messina had reached new spheres in the decade-old concept of "microtargeting" supporters.

Virtually every part of a potential supporter's life was now fair game for a curious campaign operative. Which magazines does this person read? Does he use an iPhone or an Android? What church does she go to? What kind of car does he or she drive? Even Facebook updates or Twitter statuses were vacuumed up and measured for policy preferences.

"Collecting a lot of data points on each person, you start building a profile," says Herb Asher, professor emeritus at the Ohio State University and an election campaign specialist. "You start making probabilistic statements. A person goes to a fundamentalist church, reads conservative news magazines and is a member of the National Rifle Association. It is highly probable that if you can get that person out to vote, he or she would vote for a conservative."

No more privacy

With the help of complicated algorithms, campaigns in the United States today take big data and use social media and localized TV ads to start targeting individual messages and incentives at individual voters - in a country of close to 320 million people.

two men standing alongside US flag Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Messina (left) was instrumental in using modern technology to identify and rally Obama supporters

Since helping Obama to four more years, Messina has taken his talents on the road. He worked for Prime Minister David Cameron in the 2015 UK elections. And in 2017, he wants to help Germany's Social Democrats (SPD) to oust Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But while the shrewd operative can certainly render valuable advice, the SPD won't be able to take his approach to the same lengths as Obama did four years ago. Germany's tough privacy laws make all-encompassing data collection an all-but-impossible task.

Not so on Messina's home turf, though, where he now advises Hillary Clinton's run for the White House.

"I've said to people: There is no privacy," Herb Asher told DW.

A technological revolution

Using data to "Get out the Vote," as savvy campaign strategists have dubbed their turnout operations, has come a long way.

"You talk to people who ran campaigns in the 80s, and it was all done on index cards," said Nicco Mele, who in 2004 popularized the use of technology as webmaster for Democrat Howard Dean's presidential bid and has since moved to gather academic accolades at Harvard and most recently at the University of Southern California. "You had an index card of everybody in the neighborhood, and if they were a five they were certain to vote for you. If they were a three, they were undecided. But the paper has since become digital. That is where the Obama campaign showed some real sophistication."

Mele told DW that he believes the most important information on voters still concerns their - publicly available - voter registration as well as their likelihood to give money to the campaign.

two men holding cell phones Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Somebody's watching you - and knows what makes you tick

But how do campaigns get their hands on that data if voters don't give it up voluntarily?

The simple answer: They buy it.

Corporate complicity

For years, state parties and non-profit organizations such as Planned Parenthood have developed data-sharing vehicles around the country. In the early-caucus-state Iowa, where his turnout operations elevated ultra-conservative Ted Cruz to an upset victory over the eccentric Republican frontrunner Donald Trump just a few weeks ago, the Democratic state party has put all its voter information on one such platform called "The Van." In return for a $75,000-plus donation, they then sold access to information such as voter registration, past election participation or policy preferences that a person may have given up in a private conversation with a party volunteer.

"We keep track of that information to determine your level of loyalty to the party," Tom Henderson, the longtime chairman of Iowa’s Polk County Democrats in Des Moines, told DW.

But when it comes to information about magazine subscriptions or phone usage, campaigns have to go even one step farther.

According to Mele, there are different ways for profit-oriented companies such as magazine publishing houses to work around their lapidary terms-and-conditions sale promise not to give personal customer data to third parties, and then turn around and sell it to campaigns.

First: What data is really included in those "personal customer data" and similar definitions? The second way around is to not sell individual data but data on regional trends - this many people have bought this kind of car in this town in a specific time frame. And the third option is to sell data that customers voluntarily - or involuntarily - gave up.

"You may sign terms of service when you subscribe to The New York Times," Mele said. "But then at some point The New York Times asks you to take a survey about their products and services, and that may fall under different terms of service. They then sell that data."

He says back in his day, a dozen years ago, campaigns paid up to $150,000 a month for access to constantly-updated customer information databases. Today, that number is likely to be much higher. And: The shadow marketplace works both ways - corporations could also offer cash-strapped campaigns a much-needed financial injection and ask them for access to the information they have gathered on people in return. Mele, both a former political and corporate marketing consultant, said that is possible but also warns he is not aware of any such deals happening.

His argument: Voter preference doesn't much help a company seeking to sell a product. But then again - to quote Mele's own words - it may certainly help them to "complete the picture."