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HARI SREENIVASAN, Correspondent: That’s me at home, surrounded by my digital devices. Like many of you, I’m spending more of my time on line. 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’ve spent the last few months being inundated by political advertising. Seems like no matter where I go, there they are.
ANNOUNCER: Obama wages war on coal─
MITT ROMNEY (R-Mass.), Fmr. Gov., Pres. Nominee: 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’s shaping up to be a razor-close election. But who’s 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 non-partisan 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’ve been targeting voters for a long time, campaigns have been. What’s different about it now?
JOHN ARISTOTLE PHILLIPS, CEO, 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’s relevant.
This is the coin of the realm. And the magic of the big data is the ability to 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. But 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: And on top of the registered voter file, there might be other information that’s added.
This information comes from commercial marketing firms─ an email 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 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 has to do─ if it says something and predicts something about the way you’re going to 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. 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’s 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’ve 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’s 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: So what proportion of their energy is focused on this data and digital side?
JOHN ARISTOTLE PHILLIPS: It’s less than half. It’s less than a quarter. It’s─ but the fact of the matter is that the money that’s spent on the digital component of the campaign, on how this information is used, is often the most effectively spent money in the campaign.
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. Both candidates are fighting hard here, but I’m going to visit the Obama campaign first. He’s got digital teams across the country, but the one he has in Ohio is one of his largest.
ASHLEY BRYANT, Ohio Digital Dir., Obama Campaign: Let’s just do a check. Email─ I just sent to the thread. Landing page, done.
HARI SREENIVASAN: This may look like a traditional campaign team doing traditional field work, but they’re part of a campaign that’s collected more voter data than any other in history, and their volunteers are using a slew of new tools for both data gathering and voter targeting.
The GPS in your smartphone is the blue dot in the center.
I’m meeting with the digital director for Ohio, Ashley Bryant, a key player in one of the most data-hungry campaigns in history.
ASHLEY BRYANT: These flags are the voters. These are the doors that you could potentially knock.
HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NewsHour: Now anyone who signs up for the campaign on line can download the Obama app that comes pre-loaded with targets and tailored scripts. And they’re not just pitching President Obama, they’re also collecting even more information.
ASHLEY BRYANT: So who do you support for President? And we simply click that button, whether they’re a strong supporter, a leaning supporter, if they’re a strong Republican.
Once that information is there, it’s able to be, you know, researched and analyzed and figured out, you know, what are the buckets?
HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s right, “buckets.” For both the Romney and Obama campaigns, the goal is to target voters efficiently. So they divide us into groups called buckets─ the “mobilization” bucket for strong supporters of the candidate, the “opposition” bucket for those voting for the other guy, so no need to spend resources on them, and the “persuasion” bucket for those valuable undecideds.
And the campaigns create buckets within buckets. The more data they have, the more they can refine them.
So details, notes, are these on the specifics so I can take notes on my exchange?
ASHLEY BRYANT: Absolutely. And we would like to collect an email address for this particular user. We can collect notes.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So if that person tells me what their most important issue is, do I put that in the notes somewhere?
ASHLEY BRYANT: I would absolutely put that in the notes because we know next time, you know, when we’re building an audience that, you know that Joe Shmo was a small business owner, so you want to absolutely make sure that he’s a part of that audience.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So I now have the ability to see which of my neighbors are Democrats or Republicans. So that’s not kind of creepy?
ASHLEY BRYANT: Not necessarily. It’s still public information. But the information that we’re getting from voters, that is definitely only for our internal usage. It would never be shared or used by anyone else.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And the campaign collects even more data through a new organizing tool called Dashboard, which allows them to pinpoint not just potential voters but potential volunteers, the people in the mobilization bucket.
ASHLEY BRYANT: This is our on-line field office. And so Dashboard is definitely both a social tool but also a reporting tool, a team-building tool. Everything you can think that we’re doing off line, we’re trying to bring that onto the on-line space.
Very simple initial signup. It’s going to be your street address, your zip code, and tell us the issues that most matter to you, and things like that. And so here this also gives you the option of logging in with Facebook. It’s a lot easier because Facebook already has a lot of your information, whether it’s phone number, address, et cetera.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Not to mention who your friends are, your interests and hobbies, and anything else in your public profile.
With all that information, the campaign is able to build teams of like-minded volunteers─ Latinos for Obama, Pacific Islanders for Obama, sportsmen for Obama, all being recruited as part of the Obama ground game. They meet on line and then gather in the real world.
The day we were at the Columbus field office, this group of volunteers, who cared about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, was preparing to go out and canvass local voters in support of the president.
VOLUNTEER COORDINATOR: So we’re all here because we care about the president. We care about LGBT issues─
HARI SREENIVASAN: And if you can’t make it there in person, the digital campaign still wants you.
ASHLEY BRYANT: We have folks that can’t get to our offices, but they want to be a part of this election. This has given them the opportunity to not just send a tweet or post on Facebook, but they can contact voters directly from their home or their offices.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Without ever leaving their homes, volunteers can use Dashboard’s call tool to reach out to potential voters, voters who’ve been compiled from the campaign’s database, and read them customized scripts based on current events and the issues they care about.
And on the digital campaign trail, information always begets more information.
It seems that whether it’s Dashboard or the mobile app, they kind of serve two purposes. One, to make sure your teams are in communication with one another, and another to kind of learn about the voters that you’re going out and reaching.
ASHLEY BRYANT: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we’re always going to be collecting information because that’s how, you know, we extend our reach and that’s how we can continue to communicate with that person. Just one phone call or one email is not going to get that person to the─ to the polls on election day.
HARI SREENIVASAN: For years, campaigns have dreamed of being able to take the information they gather through canvassing and phone banking, social media and email groups, and match it to our voter files and the data culled by private commercial data brokers, to create an enormous, unified database of voter information.
This year, for the first time ever, the campaigns have that ability.
ASHLEY BRYANT: Now we’re at a place where whether you’re a field person entering their numbers in the evening from us collecting information from a Facebook post, if you’re in Virginia, if you’re in Ohio, that’s all going to filter into this one platform that not only our states can see but our headquarters can see, as well.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So the information seems to being going back and forth from the field to headquarters.
ASHLEY BRYANT: Absolutely. I mean, it’s a complete circular flow of information.
HARI SREENIVASAN: What is Chicago doing with the sort of larger data sets that they have?
ASHLEY BRYANT: Headquarters in Chicago does take the lead. They’re able to put those buckets of folks together for us so that we can target efficiently.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So with access to an unprecedented wealth of data, the campaigns can send an issue-related video ad to someone in the persuasion bucket or send canvassers to solicit donations from someone in the mobilization bucket.
How much of an edge do you think you have digitally versus the opposition just by the fact that you’ve been here longer?
ASHLEY BRYANT: The work that was done in 2008 is a wonderful foundation for us. And to have that type of successful digital campaign to build off of is definitely an edge.
VOLUNTEERS: Fired up! Ready to go!
HARI SREENIVASAN: It all adds up to a formidable digital army. Plus, President Obama’s got a four-year head start, and more than three times as many Ohio field offices as Mitt Romney.
But the digital battlefield has no boundaries. And to see how Romney’s fighting for Ohio, I need to go 700 miles east, to campaign headquarters in Boston.
Usually, a candidate in Romney’s position would deluge Ohio with TV ads, and he is. But the campaign says this won’t be enough, so they’re ramping up their digital assault.
Zac Moffatt is Romney’s digital director.
Essentially, the Obama campaign has had that significant head start. So how do you deal with that challenge of starting where you’re starting?
ZAC MOFFATT, Digital Director, Romney Campaign: We don’t judge ourselves based upon the Obama campaign because, if we did, we’d be judging ourselves against an entity that’s been around for six years and who’s run unopposed for the last three.
For the Romney campaign, what we have determined that if we only rely on national television, we will lose this election.
This is the first time in presidential history that people take dollars out of television and move it on line. And so digital becomes a persuasion-mobilization effort, as opposed to historically just being list-building and fund-raising.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Moffatt helped crunch data for Bush-Cheney in 2004, when a mere 100,000 voters in Ohio decided the presidential election. Moffatt quickly realized that future elections would be won or lost on the margins.
Last year, Moffatt co-commissioned a survey that found roughly one third of the electorate is more difficult to reach by traditional campaign methods. They’re the people who spend more of their lives on line. Moffatt calls these voters “off the grid,”
This large off-the-grid population, who are they?
ZAC MOFFATT: We define them by this term of people who we call time-shifters, people who don’t watch live television anymore. Other than sports, they kind of─ they choose to live their lives on demand. So what they do is they primarily watch, you know, DVR, Hulu, Netflix. They’re choosing when they consume their content, so that’s the big differential for them.
And so they’re really bypassing traditional advertising. They don’t think of Modern Family as starting at 8:00 o’clock on Wednesday, they think of it as starting when they turn on their DVR box. And they don’t think of Modern Family as 30 minutes, they think of it as 22 minutes with 8 minutes of fast-forwarding.
So I mean, it’s an astronomical amount of people who do not see a TV spot, one in three voters.
HARI SREENIVASAN: That works out to more than two million off-the-grid voters in Ohio alone, 20 times the margin that decided the 2004 election.
So if off-the-grid voters won’t come to the ads, the ads will have to come to them. The campaigns find them by following the trail of cookie crumbs.
So what’s a cookie? Well, a cookie is an invisible piece of code that gets dropped onto your computer when you visit a Web site. They’re there to help companies and advertisers track your movements and learn more about you.
Do you click Fox News or CNN? Huffington Post or Drudge Report? Shop for a Hummer or a Prius?
The cookies on your computer record it all. It’s valuable information for anyone who wants to sell you something, including a presidential candidate.
This year’s election is the first time the presidential campaigns have been able to take this on-line cookie data and match it with your voter information, social networks, and those 500 off-line data points from companies like Aristotle. The result is the clearest, most detailed picture of the electorate the campaigns have ever had.
Though they’d rather you didn’t think about that too much.
If you have all these different data points, aren’t you almost getting to me? So let’s say if you said, you know, off-the-gridder that’s independent in Virginia that might be in the Indian-American sub-community, you’re getting closer and closer and closer to figuring out who I am, right?
ZAC MOFFATT: It’s not imperative and it’s not something we strive as a campaign to know it’s you. Whereas mail, when it comes to your house, it has your name on it, right?
HARI SREENIVASAN: Right.
ZAC MOFFATT: Very, very different experience than what’s occurring on line, where it’s that you fall kind of into these broader groups that would make sense, but you’d never get an ad unit sent to you with your name in it because I think that that would be─ people would feel very, very uncomfortable with that at this stage of kind of digital privacy evolution.
HARI SREENIVASAN: In other words, the campaigns know who you are, but they don’t really care because what they’re trying to do is to group together as many people like you as possible.
Once Moffatt has his list of targets, this is where he sends it, to a company he co-founded. Nestled in a discreet Virginia office park is a private interactive ad agency working for the Romney campaign. Its name says it all, Targeted Victory.
Its other co-founder, Michael Beach, and his team of digital detectives follow our on-line footprints and help Moffatt find key targets like the off-the-gridders.
Beach gave me a glimpse of how he does it.
How do you make sure that that on-line advertising gets somewhere into the sphere of where I surf the Internet?
MICHAEL BEACH, Co-Founder, Targeted Victory: Traditionally, they’ve gone and bought a TV show or bought a channel. You know, think of it less that we’re buying a channel, that we’re buying an audience. And so we’re not necessarily concerned with where the ad runs, it’s who it runs to. And that’s kind of─ really, you know, flips the whole kind of mass marketing, you know, tradition on its head.
HARI SREENIVASAN: In the past, political operatives had to guess where to find their most valuable targets. Today they have a treasure map that leads right to them.
Remember cookies, those little pieces of code that can be dropped on your browser to record what you do on line? Campaigns aren’t only buying ads on specific Web sites, they’re also buying access to your cookies, which tell the campaigns where you go on line. This lets them follow you around the Internet and hit you with their advertising on whatever Web sites you visit.
If I told you that I’m a registered independent in a battleground state, that I’m on a smartphone, I haven’t watched any live TV in the last week, how do you figure out a way to reach me?
MICHAEL BEACH: So you first run geographic. It’s kind of your initial way to narrow down an audience. And here, you know, we’re just going to run to Virginia.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And so am I a hot commodity in Virginia right now?
MICHAEL BEACH: Everybody’s a hot commodity in Virginia right now, being one of the key states. And then after that, it’s starting to get into what kind of medium are you trying to run. Are you trying to reach people on desktop? Are you trying to reach people on mobile, reach people on tablets? And then that’s starting to get into demographic information to kind of narrow your target further.
So here we’ll do male, you know, 35 to 44-
HARI SREENIVASAN: And this is only scratching the surface. Beach can target me based on obvious things like my party affiliation, my religion or my income bracket, but also on the not so obvious, like the clothes I wear, the food I eat, or the movies I watch, little scraps of information that may mean nothing to me but help the campaign figure out how to get inside my head.
How much further can you go?
MICHAEL BEACH: There are a lot of data points available. The challenge is for on line to be effective for a campaign, it has to scale. And so you know, there’s only so far in the rabbit hole you want to go of information because then, you know, you’ve got a really well targeted ad that eight people are going to see in an election where you need, you know, a million votes.
But I think the idea is to definitely cut off as much waste as you can, and then really figure out the top objective of the ad, whether it’s to─ like you said, to mobilize or it’s just to persuade.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And you laser-target an ad based on which one of those buckets I fell into?
MICHAEL BEACH: Yes. I think right away, you would fall into our persuasion bucket.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And when I surf the Web, all of a sudden, I see this ad.
MICHAEL BEACH: Yeah.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So because I’m in the persuadable bucket, Beach would show me an ad that would introduce me to the Romney-Ryan ticket.
And that’s where on-line advertising truly eclipses TV. Campaigns can target their ads so specifically that different people in the same household may see totally different ads. And that’s something that TV-based campaigns can only dream of. They can measure instantaneously whether the ad hit its target.
MICHAEL BEACH: The one main difference is now I can have all kinds of calls to action. So I can watch more videos, I can share this on Twitter, Facebook, or by emails.
HARI SREENIVASAN: So unlike a traditional TV purchase, there’s a huge opportunity here for you to learn about me on whether I see the ad, whether I interact with the ad or engage with the ad?
MICHAEL BEACH: Anything like that is feedback that tells, you know, the campaign this is the right message or this is not the right message. And so that could change, you know, what a campaign decided to deliver in the future.
HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s an endless feedback loop, channeling data back to the campaigns for them to learn even more about us, and refine their pitches further.
There’s this concern that having such focused laser targets isn’t necessarily good for democracy, that you’re not actually building more people into the system, you’re just targeting people that you really need.
MICHAEL BEACH: I don’t agree with that because I think if you looked at how much money gets spent, like, you know, to use mobilization as an example, increasing turnout is for both sides, you know, in a close election, could be the difference between, you know, winning or losing.
HARI SREENIVASAN: The digital campaign has changed tremendously since the last election. Tapping into the power of our personal data, both the Romney and Obama campaigns have unprecedented new abilities not only to find us at home and on line, but to engage us and collect even more data on us.
It’s the campaign strategy of the future. Spending on on-line ads in this year’s elections is projected to reach $160 million. That’s a six-fold increase since 2008. And as we live more and more of our lives on line, the importance of the digital campaign will only grow.
On November 6th, the election will be over, and the planning for 2016 will begin. Campaigns will come and go every four years, but our data ─ and the digital feedback loop ─ will live on.
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