Political strategists increasingly go digital

Who do you plan to vote for in the next election, and might a well-produced ad or timely knock on the door change your opinion? Political analytics firms like i360 think they have the answers to such questions and can deploy their technology to affect election outcomes.

Andrew Rice, writing in National Journal, notes that i360, affiliated with a conservative nonprofit network funded by the Koch brothers, has a database containing more than 250 million profiles, with voters scored from 0 (partisan Democrat) to 100 (partisan Republican).

According to Rice, “The company pinpoints a person's place on its spectrum by using information from sources obvious and arcane: voter registries, credit agencies, social networks, and so on. Are you rich or poor? Do you live in a heavily Democratic precinct? Are you related to a lot of Republicans? Have you tweeted displeasure with President Obama? Did you recently purchase a Bible? Any of these data points might move the needle, i360 says.”

Rice notes that using technology to attempt to influence voting is not new, pointing to a digital laboratory called the cave, in which Obama campaign technology wizards “…famously mined data to new extents of granular precision.” As the New York Times put in an article in 2013, when the staffers left the cave, “…they had not only helped produce a victory that defied a couple of historical predictors; they also developed a host of highly effective marketing techniques that were either entirely new or had never been tried on such a grand scale.”

Innovations, reported the Times, included sifting through self-described Obama supporters' Facebook pages in search of friends who might be persuaded to vote Democratic—an initiative that required thousands of lines of code.

What has changed since 2012, writes Rice in National Journal, “…is the sheer number of firms and consultants operating in the political-technology sector. Huge sums of cash are flowing into it. Parties are fundraising for it. Billionaire venture capitalists are investing in it. Start-ups that specialize in it are constantly being born.”

However, Rice warns, “Politics, advertising, and the tech business are all prone to exaggeration, and when they come together, the hucksterism can get grandiose. Poke around the subject, and your email in-box will soon begin to fill with subject lines that read like ads for male enhancement: 'Deep Root Analytics: 5 extra points at the polls.'”

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