by Moisés Naím
For Franklin D. Roosevelt it was radio. And for John F. Kennedy, television. For Barack Obama’s first election it was internet, and in particular, Facebook. This has been widely commented: in each of those elections, a new technology contributed to the victory of the candidate who took best advantage of it.
So which technological innovation will go furthest toward determining the winner in the upcoming American elections? The answer is data mining, and more concretely, microtargeting.
Among experts there is a consensus that, in this field, the president’s campaign team has a lead over Romney’s. This is Obama’s secret weapon, and his principal advisors are convinced that, in an electoral race as close as this one, superiority in the use of these technologies is going to be the determining factor in his re-election.
Data mining is a branch of computer science that uses complex algorithms and statistical methods to identify the patterns that may exist in the huge but chaotic databases being accumulated thanks to new technologies. They turn this scattered information into knowledge that is useful for decision-making. In the business world, data mining has been used with great sophistication for some time. When you log into the internet and an ad appears, its content is probably the result of these technologies. The specific message you receive is selected from a list of possible ads, and the machine chooses which one to send you, based on calculations about who you are (woman, 37, married with children, lives in city X, neighborhood Y), what you like (has bought this or that), what you do, (regularly visits websites A and B), and the information drawn from a database on individuals with the same characteristics, likes and habits as you. All this reveals the most typical patterns determining a purchase decision in your segment. So the advertising you receive is directly targeted at your motivations, purchasing power and desires. This is microtargeting: aiming micrometrically not just at a generic market, an audience or an electorate, but at very specific segments within these categories.
In the political world these techniques had been used less, but lately they have become common and, indeed, indispensable.
Obama’s advantage in this field goes back to the 2007 primary elections, and then to his presidential campaign of 2008. His candidacy attracted an unprecedented number of young people, new to politics but wizards in the use of internet.
Terry McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic Party, told me: “Obama has the best people in the world in the use of internet for political campaigns. I know it all too well from personal experience. I ran Hillary’s campaign in the primaries against Obama. They were extraordinary!"
Many of them are full-time employees, and come from companies such as Google, Facebook or Amazon. Harper Reed, for example, a former hacker and very successful seller of t-shirts on internet, runs Obama’s data mining operation. He gives no interviews and his activities are kept secret. But he has mounted the most ambitious and efficient technological structure for knowing who to contact, what to say to them and what to ask them for (a vote, a donation, help getting the votes of their friends and family, make phone calls, volunteer a car to drive people to vote, etc.). Indeed, technology enables the campaigns to send different messages to two people in the same family who live in the same house.
In contrast, Romney’s campaign, which also makes ample use of these technologies, uses a different approach and relies more on private companies whose services the candidate used successfully during his time in business.
The unemployment rate, the money that the candidates have available for their campaigns, the Super PACs, the debates, the candidates’ personalities and their electoral promises are just some in a long list of factors that are going to influence the choice of the next president of the United States. But the capacity for turning massive, unstructured information into knowledge that brings in votes will rank very high on that list.