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How Campaigns Amass Your Personal Information to Deliver Tailored Political Ads

October 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Political advertisers now have unprecedented access to online browsing data, and the presidential campaigns are using gathered information to slice and dice the electorate and engage with voters on issues that are most relevant to their lives. Hari Sreenivasan reports in collaboration with Frontline, Marketplace and Pro Publica.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s me at home surrounded by my digital devices. Like many of you, I’m spending more of my time online. It’s how I stay connected. It’s where I get my news and entertainment. And TV? I still watch it, but on my own schedule. And like much of America, I have spent the last few months being inundated by political advertising. Seems like no matter where I go, there they are.

NARRATOR: Obama wages war on coal.

MITT ROMNEY (R): I’m not in favor of a $5 trillion tax cut. That’s not my plan. My promise…

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Read my plan.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But we’re not seeing this stuff at random. We’re being targeted. Behind the scenes, teams of digital gurus have been studying us and tracking us to deliver tailored video ads, phone calls and strategic door knocks.

This could be the year that digital strategies decide what is shaping up to be a razor-close election. But who is watching us? And how much do they know about us? I’m on the hunt for answers, first stop, Washington, D.C.

Just a few blocks from the Capitol, tucked away in a nondescript building, is one of the nation’s leading providers of political intelligence. It’s called Aristotle. And the data they gather and sell, our personal information, is big business. And it’s the lifeblood of the digital campaign. Without it, no modern presidential campaign can survive.

This place has metal doors, security cameras, biometric sensors. I’m going to have to try the doorbell.

Aristotle is a nonpartisan company in a small, mostly partisan industry. They’re feeding information to both the Obama and Romney campaigns and have supplied voter data to every U.S. president since Reagan. But this election is different. Today, digital technology has given campaigns the ability to take that data and target voters with a precision never before possible, says Aristotle CEO John Phillips.

So, we have been targeting voters for a long time. Campaigns have been. What’s different about it now?

JOHN ARISTOTLE PHILLIPS, Aristotle: So, there are a couple of things that have changed. And 2012 is really a watershed year.

What’s changed is that the campaigns have found that by using powerful computers and sophisticated software that they are able to quickly sift through these mountains of data and slice and dice the electorate to break down that mass of voters to just the people that you want to reach and talk to them about something that is relevant.

This is the coin of the realm. And the magic of the big data is the ability to do one-to-one targeting.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How is a campaign targeting a guy like me? I’m a registered independent in a battleground state. How do they come after me?

JOHN ARISTOTLE PHILLIPS: It starts with a registered voter file. Think about it as the DNA of the electorate.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Your name, address, gender, race, that’s all in the registered voter file. And it’s available to the campaigns.

JOHN ARISTOTLE PHILLIPS: Now, on top of the registered voter file, there might be other information that’s added.

This information comes from commercial marketing firms, an e-mail address, for instance, if that’s known, or telephone number if it’s a listed phone number. Also added is information such as demographics. They collect information from surveys, from magazine subscriptions. And it can be very precise.

So, for instance, if someone subscribes to a magazine about pets, it’s a good bet that they have a pet at home and they’re a pet owner.

HARI SREENIVASAN: How many data points are there about an individual that someone like Aristotle has access to?

JOHN ARISTOTLE PHILLIPS: Well, it depends on the individual, but it can be up to 500 different data points on each individual.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Wouldn’t you love to know what the 500 data points they have on you are? I would too, but Phillips declined to show me my own data because I live in Virginia, where the election privacy laws are unusually strict. The best he could do is show me the kind of data he could collect on a hypothetical voter like me.

Wow, the type of clothes that I buy, whether I have a gold card, if I have a pool, if I have a pet, if I’m a NASCAR fan, veteran, smoker. But why are these details so valuable to the campaigns? So do the campaigns care about what kind of car I drive, what kind of music I listen to?

JOHN ARISTOTLE PHILLIPS: Only if it has to do — if it says something and predicts something about the way you’re going on vote. You may not vote Republican because you drive a Corvette. But there may be a correlation between people who own Corvettes and voting behavior.

And if there is, they’re going to exploit that correlation and they’re going to be trying to find as many Corvette owners as they can.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And the ability to predict voter behavior is what makes all of this data so powerful. Once the campaigns collect all of this seemingly random information about us, they feed it into sophisticated mathematical formulas called algorithms, which are used to predict voter behavior.

The more information fed into these models, the better a campaign can predict what issues particular voters might care about or what type of ads they would be most receptive to.

For example, an Ohio male registered Democrat who votes primaries, owns a shotgun, visits The Wall Street Journal Web site, might swing Republican and be susceptible to ads about gun control.

Or a Florida female who is registered independent with children under 18 years old and is a pet owner may lean Democrat and be susceptible to ads about education issues. Thanks to these algorithms, the campaigns can categorize voters into like-minded groups and tailor their advertising directly to them.

JOHN ARISTOTLE PHILLIPS: What this now shows is when you have done a select of voters in a particular jurisdiction, it will map out where those voters live.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Which means once the campaigns have used algorithms to decide which voters to target, the elusive pet-owning, Washington, D.C., NASCAR fans who care about national security, for instance, Phillips’ software can lead them right to their front door.

So, a campaign can literally know who on a block-by-block basis is persuadable and only target those people?

JOHN ARISTOTLE PHILLIPS: That’s correct.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But what makes this year’s presidential election different is that political advertisers now have unprecedented access to your online browsing data and can deliver tailored ads to you online.

JOHN ARISTOTLE PHILLIPS: So the idea here with online is that you can target people very precisely based upon their interests and based upon the behavior. And when you do that, you’re more likely to get a result that you want.

If you’re targeting female voters in a particular swing state, those are the people you want to reach. You don’t want to reach that person’s husband.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Do I have access to the amount of information that the Obama campaign or the Romney campaign have on me or a profile like me?

JOHN ARISTOTLE PHILLIPS: You’re going to have to ask the presidential campaigns for that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s the secret sauce.

JOHN ARISTOTLE PHILLIPS: Their strategy is the secret. Their tactics and the way about — that they go about it, many campaigns are very judicious in terms of who they’re going to share the information with, not because they’re particularly concerned about your privacy, Hari, but because they are concerned about their next election.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, it’s all about data and algorithms to get the biggest bang for your buck, the idea that targeting the right voters will deliver more votes on Election Day. It’s like the “Moneyball” of politics.

And if I want to see the World Series of data-intensive digital campaigning, the place to be is here in Columbus, Ohio. A critical swing state with 18 electoral votes, Ohio has picked the winner in every election since 1964.