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About three minutes into his speech on Jan. 20, President Barack Obama spoke a word never before uttered in a Presidential inauguration speech: "data.". The word may sound nerdy, and Obama used it in reference to indicators of economic and other crises. But it's no coincidence the word found its way into his remarks. The harnessing of data has been crucial to Obama's rise to power.
Throughout the campaign, Obama and his team not only bested his Democratic and Republican rivals in social networking and fund-raising through the Internet, they also engaged in a data battle to locate potential swing voters. These efforts zeroed in on hotly contested states and congressional districts, where the shift of 1,000 or 2,000 voters could prove decisive—meaning the focus was on only a tiny fraction of the voting public. But to find those swing voters, both sides hired tech wizards to sift through mountains of consumer and demographic details. They scrutinized nearly everyone they could find.
One Democratic consultancy, Spotlight Analysis, took this hunt to extraordinary lengths. Working on behalf of Democratic candidates, though not directly for the Obama campaign, Spotlight crunched neighborhood details, family sizes, and purchasing behavior. It then grouped nearly every American of voting age—175 million of us—into 10 "values" tribes. Fellow tribe members may not share the same race or religion, or fall into the same income bracket, but they have common feelings about issues that transcend politics: God, community, responsibility, and opportunity. Spotlight believes that one of these tribes, a morally guided (but not necessarily religious) grouping of some 14 million voters—dubbed "Barn Raisers"—held the key to the contest between Obama and his Republican challenger, Arizona Senator John McCain.
The definition of a Barn Raiser cuts straight to the heart of what distinguishes political microtargeting from traditional political groupings. Barn Raisers can be of any race, religion, or ethnic group. About 40% of Barn Raisers are Democrats, or lean that way, and 27% favor Republicans—though the group strongly supported President Bush in his 2004 reelection campaign. Barn Raisers are slightly less likely to have a college education than Spotlight's other swing groups. They're active in community organizations but are ambivalent about government. And they care more deeply than most people about "playing by the rules" and "keeping promises," to use Spotlight's definitions.
With special appeals to Barn Raisers in swing states, Spotlight's clients, including the Service Employees International Union and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, hoped to turn battleground states such as Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, and Ohio. The data-based techniques they put to use, similar to those used to target supermarket shoppers and even to hunt for terrorists, are turning politics into the sophisticated calculations typically associated with Google (GOOG) and its ilk. In a fraction of a second, computers sort us into segments and then calculate the potential that each of us has to swing from red or purple to blue. For many, this signals the dehumanization of politics.
Others say political data mining helps better pinpoint individuals whose views and priorities may otherwise be overlooked. Consider a voter in, say, Richmond, Va. Republican and Democratic data miners count the number of children she has in school, they take note of her car, her Zip Code, her magazine subscriptions, and the balance on her mortgage. They might even find in her data that she has two cats and no dog. (Cat owners lean slightly for Democrats, dog owners trend Republican.) In the end, they place her into a political tribe and draw conclusions about the issues that matter to her. Is that so horrible?
For generations, politicians lacked the means to study us as individuals. So they placed us into enormous groups—blacks, Jews, gays, union members, hunters, soccer moms—and treated us as masses. While the rich and well-connected got to collar candidates at $1,000-a-plate dinners, the rest of us were processed as herds.
Nowadays, Spotlight and other microtargeters (for both parties) continue to place us into big groups. But the divisions are based more on our behavior and choices, and less on the names, colors, and clans that marked us from birth.
Spotlight embarked on its research three years ago by interviewing thousands of voters the old-fashioned way. At first, Barn Raisers didn't seem especially noteworthy. The group represented about 9% of the electorate. It spanned genders, races, and religions.
But when Spotlight's analysts dug deeper, they discovered that Barn Raisers stood at the epicenter of America's political swing. In 2004, 90% of them voted for President Bush, but then the group's political leanings shifted, with 64% of them saying they voted for Democrats in the 2006 election. Spotlight surveys showed that political scandals, tax-funded boondoggles like Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere, and the botched job on Hurricane Katrina sent them packing.
Suddenly, Spotlight had a line on millions of swing voters. The challenge then was to locate groups of them in swing states. For this, the company analyzed the demographics and buying patterns of the Barn Raisers they surveyed personally. Then it instructed its computers to scour commercially available databases for others with matching profiles. By Spotlight's count, this approach nailed Barn Raisers three times out of four. So Democrats could bet that at least three-quarters of them would be likely to welcome an appeal stressing honesty and fair play.
Did it work? Spotlight hasn't yet carried out the surveys to determine how many of its Barn Raisers backed Obama. But it's reasonable to presume that amid that sea of humanity stretched out before Obama on Washington's Mall on Jan. 20, at least some of those were moved by microtargeted appeals. And if Obama and his team fail to honor their mathematically honed vows, the Barn Raisers may abandon them in droves. They're swing voters, after all.
And if there is one thing the research has made clear, it's this: Even if Barn Raisers exist as a tribe only in a database, they take broken promises very seriously. And they probably won't object if data-mining politicians figure that out.
Baker is a senior writer for BusinessWeek in New York.