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Experience Mumbai. American Legends: The Pilgrims and the Mayflower. Legends of the West: The Gunfight at the O. What proved effective was distilling hundreds of data points into simple categories of voters: likely supporters, those that can be persuaded, and those supporting another candidate. For example, the Obama campaign hired a consulting firm, Strategic Telemetry, to create its voter models.
Strategic Telemetry then built models of voters from these combinations of data points and layered them onto the voter file, generating a composite score of likely support for Obama on a zero-to-one-hundred scale for every member of the electorate. The firm then continually polled the electorate and incorporated the results of field canvasses to refine its models.
The Obama campaign targeted priority individuals residing in heavily Republican districts, and focused on neighborhoods with low voter turnout but high numbers of likely supporters.
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The Obama campaign also developed its online advertising strategy using these voter models and targeting strategies, including using geo-location targeting made possible by IP addresses to display ads to individuals residing in congressional districts with high concentrations of Democratic voters and favorable demographics. The data that support this modeling are increasingly being merged with information about the online identities and behavior of voters.
While it is difficult to have an accurate picture of an in-progress campaign, it is clear that the integration of databases to deliver more targeted communications is a key theme of the campaign. In two recent pieces, Philip Howard and I identified three ways that this proliferation of political data undermines political privacy and threatens democratic practice.
And yet, as the discussion below suggests, even as these data practices support political participation and mobilization, they come with a democratic cost. First, there is the reality, and future risk, of data breaches and the unauthorized dissemination of sensitive citizen information. Political data is traded on a largely unregulated and international market.
Multinational credit firms such as Experian service much of the political sector, and both parties have outsourced the technical development of campaign tools and databases to third parties, including foreign entities.
The History of the Democratic Party: A Political Primer
A number of recent incidents reflect the growing potential for abuse of political information. Second, privacy is important for protecting anonymous speech and freedom of association. Privacy helps ensure robust political debate by providing citizens the opportunity to form their own viewpoints, craft arguments, and develop political identities free from surveillance and public pressure, all of which also preserves a space for dissent from prevailing social norms.
There is little evidence that citizens are becoming wary of the media and its associated privacy concerns, even in the face of the pervasive gathering of information and growing concerns of scholars. But as citizens become more educated about privacy-related issues they may be less likely to engage in public and private political expression.
Third, there are enormous informational asymmetries in the contemporary use of data that implicate political competitiveness, discourse, and representation. Political data and the consulting services necessary to render it actionable are not cheap. Wealthy candidates and those with deep-pocketed allies have a competitive advantage in their ability to purchase comprehensive voter data and sophisticated modeling and targeting services.
Minor party and insurgent candidates within parties have comparatively fewer resources to spend on these services. Even the prices parties charge their own candidates to access their voter files can be prohibitively expensive. Campaigns also use data to actively and surreptitiously shape political discourse. Furthermore, with the merging of databases, the information environments that these citizens inhabit are increasingly qualitatively different from those of their politically engaged peers, unbeknownst to them.
Disengaged citizens are less likely to see political advertising given that campaigns do not spend resources on individuals unlikely to vote. At the same time, candidates can increasingly choose not only which voters they wish to interact with, but the face of their public selves to present.