Why you should care
Because voters are trickier than candidates’ data teams think.
You might think the important thing in politics is being familiar with the candidates. Actually, it’s what the candidates know about you that makes the difference between whether or not they win in November. Campaigns are using increasingly sophisticated technology to collect data, says political theorist Josef Ansorge, who notes presidential hopefuls can purchase access to everything from your magazine subscriptions to the make of car you drive and the places you shop — in essence, all the things that add up to who you are.
Indeed, campaigns today are creating some of the most comprehensive profiles of the American people in sociological history, says Ansorge, author of Identity & Sort: How Digital Power Changed World Politics. Armed with such information, they can then transmit personalized ads to individual televisions, prioritized for maximum influence. If it all sounds a bit Big Brother-ish, well, it is — and it’s revolutionizing the ways campaigns can innovate and interact with potential voters.
OZY: What was one of the greatest impacts of digital communication and information from a past presidential campaign?
Josef Ansorge: Management of the data that helps form a representation of the electorate. Obama’s 2008 database is well known as one of the most sophisticated studies of U.S. society that has ever been generated. It has 100 different factors it considers for every person — and the model is supposed to predict on a scale of 1 to 5 what your likeliness is of supporting the president.… The people in the middle — that’s really interesting. You want to reach out to them frequently and closely. It can create a differentiated field; previously, campaigns treated the U.S. people as one whole, homogeneous group. The future is wide open on this one.
We’re seeing a widespread Bradley effect, which is when you tell a pollster you’re voting for someone, but you vote for somebody else.
OZY: And the next step is?
J.A.: The next generation of campaigning will be about targeting the influencers in people’s social situations. Let’s say this person has 5,000 friends on Facebook, and they’re on the fence about supporting your candidate. Maybe you give them an ice cream with Hillary Clinton, and [they] get to ask her a question on video. If I saw one of my friends get to have an ice cream with Clinton, I’d very interested in what they have to say, and I’d watch a video. It’s made it personal in ways that it hasn’t been.
OZY: What challenges and opportunities does the Republican Party have in trying to catch up to Democratic data efforts?
J.A.: It’s not just about the email or database list the party has. The biggest reason the Republicans are struggling is you can’t have a candidate who runs a campaign on being an outsider and who doesn’t raise a lot of money, and then come up with this on the fly. That’s the difficulty. Clinton has already done this. And although everyone agreed hers was beat by Obama’s, it’s still extremely worthwhile.
That being said, we’re in a campaign that has continuously embarrassed and baffled the experts who seek to predict it. We’re seeing a widespread Bradley effect, which is when you tell a pollster you’re voting for someone, but you vote for somebody else. It leads to a lot of misrepresentation in polls. We’re in a cycle where not only do campaigns have more technological capacity than ever but there is also more uncertainty surrounding people’s ultimate political conviction, because both candidates have such high negatives.
OZY: What does the big picture look like for campaign technology?
J.A.: One day, campaigns won’t have people looking at data. You’ll use bots to troll people’s public information. During Brexit, 15 percent of the tweets were done by bots, not actual Twitter users. If you’re looking for a big, scary future: artificial intelligence tasked with propaganda, targeting me specifically and sending me only the information it knows that I’m interested in. Just like how artificial intelligence is better than we are at chess, it’s recently come out that it’s better than us at flying aircraft — and it will be better than us at propaganda.