The Creepiness Factor: How Obama and Romney Are Getting to Know You

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The presidential campaigns have the technology to know more about voters than any other bids in history.

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On a clear day in February 2001, a trim mid-career political analyst named Matthew Dowd landed in Washington, D.C., from Austin, Tex., and hurried into the White House for a meeting with Karl Rove. Inside a manila folder, he carried a sparsely-populated bar graph. The few numbers it had hit Rove like a bomb.

"Really?" Rove asked, snatching the document and glancing back at Dowd. "Man, this is a fundamental change."

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The truly independent voting bloc, Dowd's data showed, had dissolved from one-fourth of the electorate in 1984 to just 7 percent. That meant the years of work leading up to the 2000 campaign and hundreds of millions of campaign dollars during it had focused on just 7 percent of voters -- fewer than 8 million people. Everything next time, Dowd told Rove in his second-floor office, would have to be different. Forget independents. Find the Republicans hidden among the Democrats. What Dowd wanted, he would say years later, was "Moneyball for politics."

He got it. Paired with a blond-haired pollster, Alex Gage, they marshaled a campaign strategy for the re-elect entirely divergent from anything in 2000. They named it "microtargeting." The goal: Unearth every available fact on individual voters -- what they eat, drive, buy their kids, who they really are -- and use that information to persuade them to vote for George W. Bush. Use it to make them angry. Because more than any other emotion, rage and fear propel people to the polls. It worked: Just as they predicted, Americans worried by the social implications of gay marriage turned out in droves in 2004.

"But we were like kids playing with Play-doh," said Gage, who directs TargetPoint Consulting and was Mitt Romney's 2008 lead microtargeter, in a recent interview. "We thought we were pretty smart -- but today? It's mind-boggling. Someone handed us a magnifying glass and we said, 'Oh, We can see some people.' Then someone said, 'Try a microscope.' And now we're using electronic microscopes."

Inside microtargeting offices in Washington and across the nation, individual voters are today coming through in HDTV clarity -- every single digitally-active American consumer, which is 91 percent of us, according to Pew Internet research. Political strategists buy consumer information from data brokers, mash it up with voter records and online behavior, then run the seemingly-mundane minutiae of modern life -- most-visited websites, which soda's in the fridge -- through complicated algorithms and: pow! They know with "amazing" accuracy not only if, but why, someone supports Barack Obama or Romney, says Willie Desmond of Strategic Telemetry, which works for the Obama reelection campaign.

Entertaining and baffling discoveries abound. For example: Soda seems to count a great deal. Diet Dr. Pepper evidently indicates a Republican who votes, while apathetic Democrats drink 7up, according to National Media Research Planning & Placement. Beer, too, matters. Relatively uninterested Republicans go for Busch Light. Additional findings reveal that the most politically-motivated Republicans visit foxnews.com (no surprise there) while Democrats who couldn't care less attend mtv.com or scour dating websites (OK: no surprise there, too).

All of these online movements contribute to what Gage calls "data exhaust." Email, Amazon orders, resume uploads, tweets -- especially tweets -- cough out fumes that microtargeters or data brokers suck up to mold hyper-specific messaging. We've been hurled into an era of "Big Data," Gage said. In the last eight years the amount of information slopped up by firms like his, which sell information to politicians, has tripled, from 300 distinct bits on each voter in 2004 to more than 900 today. We have the rise of social media and mobile technology to thank for this.

Dowd put microtargeting's evolution this way: "It's scary." Even scarier? Most Americans don't know how the profiling works. And when they're informed, as many as 86 percent of Americans want it to stop, calling it an invasion of privacy, according to a 2009 survey, "Americans Reject Tailored Advertising," by a scholarly consortium. Pew released a report last month corroborating the findings: Nearly three-fourths of Americans say they don't want their online presence followed, even if it does lead to more personalized ads.

That's partly why the Federal Trade Commission urged Congress late last month to consider legislation that would force data brokers to explain to consumers how, when, and to what end, they collect information, as well as show what data they have. In late February, Obama pushed passage of his own "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights that he says would give people more control over their online identity. Two firms, Acxiom and Experian North America, applaud the measures, saying added transparency won't inhibit their own microtargeting or political profiling. There's just too much information out there now.

Especially if people grant access willingly. Both Obama and Romney's sites allow, if not encourage, visitors to login to their campaign websites with a Facebook account, thereby unveiling a wealth of information: email address, friend list, birthday, gender, and user ID. Obama's team, in accordance with the president's call for greater transparency, details his campaign's privacy policy in an exhaustive 2,600-word treatise. It begins like an online Miranda Rights: "Make sure that you understand how any personal information you provide will be used." Then things get a little weird.

Among other points, the policy says the campaign can monitor users' messages and emails between members, share their personal information with any like-minded organization it chooses, and follow up by sending them news it deems they'd find worthwhile. In other words, target anger points. Then there's something called "passive collection," which means cookies -- lots and lots of cookies. Obama's campaign, as well as third-party vendors working with, spray trackers so other websites can flash personalized ads based on knowledge of the trip to barackobama.com. And finally, near the end of the policy, comes one more caveat: "Nothing herein restricts the sharing of aggregated or anonymized information, which may be shared with third parties without your consent."

Romney's site apparently wants even more from its visitors, asking users who login with Facebook to "post on (their) behalf" and "access (their) data any time" they're not using the application. You can deny both functions.

"Campaigns see this as war," said Joseph Turow, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book The Daily You: How the New Advertising Industry Is Defining Your Identity and Your Worth. Each side vies for the most information to swell its own virtual catalogs. Republicans have Voter Vault. Democrats have Catalist after retiring the curiously-named "DemZilla."

At first, politicians eschewed microtargeting, arguing that tactics companies adopt would never win elections. But then George W. Bush clobbered John Kerry, who ran a sluggish campaign around labor unions and swing voters, and profiling started sounding like a pretty good idea. Now virtually every campaign, says Andrew Drechsler of Strategic Telemetry, employs the strategy. And, by all accounts, the technology hasn't even fully hatched yet.

In recent primary states, Romney aired two very different ads on local news websites: one for supporters, and another for those who may not support him. This sort of thing could pop up on television as well very soon. Within five years, Will Feltus of the National Media predicts, advertisers and politicians will only target households where the messages can have maximum effect. And just like that, the days of shared commonality over a played-out commercial will be over. Women won't have to endure Cialis marketing, and men will be skipped when it comes time to air the Tampax ads.

Pitfalls in voter profiling lurk, however. What about the Democrat who can't get enough Diet Dr. Pepper? Or the Republican who has an affinity for Hybrids and organic granola? Do lifestyle and consumer interests dictate ideology? "If people are targeted inappropriately, it's offensive," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearing House. "There's a creepiness factor."

Like so many other aspects of today's political landscape, the debate over microtargeting reflects a clash of two intractable American values: the struggle for individuality, and the desire for privacy. What Gage calls "Big Data," others would call Big Brother. We're social animals, tweeting every trenchant and insipid thought, but, somehow, we still prize anonymity. We're more open than ever, but less trusting. We want things to be easy -- Amazon, tell us which book to buy, Pandora, which song to play -- but we don't want it done behind our backs. Because that makes us feel stupid and tricked.

And, perhaps, a little scared. Like a kid who got into something without really knowing what it was, and now can't find a way out. Like we're all choking on data exhaust.

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Presented by

Terrence McCoy

Terrence M. McCoy is the Gordon Grey Fellow of International Journalism at Columbia University.

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