By the numbers
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Obama campaign's mastery of data calls up questions about the control of that data
I AM not a number. I am a free man!" was the famous cry of prisoner number six, who could never escape his Kafkaesque village on the 1960s television show, The Prisoner. This is a prescient cry for an era when numbers follow us everywhere. Jim Messina, the victorious Obama campaign manager, probably agrees that you are not a number. That's because you are four numbers.
The Obama campaign assigned all potential swing-state voters one number, on a scale of 1 to 100, that represented the likelihood that they would support Obama, and another number for the prospect that they would show up at the polls. A third metric evaluated the odds that an Obama supporter who was an inconsistent voter could be nudged to the polls, and a fourth score estimated how persuadable someone was by a conversation on a particular issue.
Messina is understandably proud of his team, which included an unprecedented number of data analysts and social scientists. As a social scientist and a former computer programmer, I enjoy the recognition my kind are getting. But I am nervous about what these powerful tools may mean for the health of our democracy, especially since we know so little about it all.
For all the bragging on the winning side — and an explicit coveting of these methods on the losing side — there are many unanswered questions. What data, exactly, do campaigns have on voters? How exactly do they use it? What rights, if any, do voters have over this data, which may detail their online browsing habits, consumer purchases and social media footprints?
How did Obama win? The message and the candidate matter, of course; it's easier to persuade voters if your policies are more popular and your candidate more appealing. But a modern winning campaign requires more. As Messina explained, his campaign made an "unparalleled" $100 million investment in technology, demanded "data on everything," "measured everything" and ran 66,000 computer simulations every day. In contrast, Mitt Romney's campaign's data operations were lagging, buggy and nowhere as sophisticated.