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Vote Stalkers: Obama, Romney Campaigns Mine Trove of Voters’ Online Data to Win 2012 Election

StoryOctober 15, 2012
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A new Mother Jones report looks at how the Romney and Obama campaigns are digitally mining personal data in order to get out the vote. Focusing their efforts online, the campaigns have been using cookies and various data-mining techniques to determine which voters to target and how to do it on a scale and scope that has never been seen before. The Obama campaign pioneered the data-mining strategy, and the Romney team put one together once he won the primary. We’re joined by Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re in New York, continuing our 100-city Election 2012 tour, as we continue to look at the election with a new report that looks at how the Romney and Obama campaigns are digitally mining personal data in order to get out the vote. Focusing their efforts online, the campaigns have been using cookies and various data-mining techniques to determine which voters to target, how to do it on a scale and scope that’s never been seen before. According to a new series published in Mother Jones magazine, the Obama campaign pioneered the data-mining strategy, and the Romney team put one together once he won the primary.

To talk more about the implications of data mining by the presidential campaigns, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Tim Murphy, Mother Jones reporter. His article is called “Inside the Obama Campaign’s Hard Drive,” and it’s accompanied by a chart called “Stalk the Vote: How Obama for America Gets to Know Jane Q. Voter.”

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Tim. Lay it out for us.

TIM MURPHY: Thanks for having me.

So, the big difference between 2012 and what campaigns have been doing for years, starting in about 2004, when Republicans and actually Romney’s campaign two years earlier started to buy consumer databases, is it’s all sort of become interoperable. So, for years, you had all of these different databases. You had—you had sort of the checkbook, which is, you know, whether or not you’ve given to campaigns in the past. You had your voter history, which is whether you voted in a primary. You know, you had information on whether you had volunteered. You had basic sort of census-level data—race, ethnicity, you know, family members. And what they’ve done now is they’ve sort of been able to incorporate that, you know, at the Obama campaign headquarters in Chicago, with some of your online information. So, for instance, they might have your email. If you sign up for an email list and you give them your address, if you opt in via Facebook to register for BarackObama.com, all of a sudden, not only do they have all this information that they’ve had for years, they also have access to, you know, your Facebook friends list, and through that, they’re able to sort of use your social networks to get you to vote, get you to volunteer, get you to give money.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain how it works. You have a chart called “Stalk the Vote.” Explain what it is they’re looking at, in terms of information about what you buy, how you use your email, when you go on Facebook, and how that helps them decide how you can get someone out to vote.

TIM MURPHY: Sure. Well, there are some—there are some very obvious things. So, you know, for instance, all of the parties keep very detailed voter lists of who showed up, you know, to canvas, who showed up to caucus, who showed up on primary day. They don’t know exactly who you voted for, but they can figure it out pretty easily. And so, that is sort of one pot of information that they just have on them and sort of lend from one campaign to another. They have access to detailed contribution lists, which go much further beyond FEC info. This goes down to whether someone gave a dollar, whether they gave $3, you know, whether they did it by a fundraising blast or not.

And they—on top of that, they have this new consumer information that they’ve started purchasing, you know, for the last decade or so, and that comes from these big firms like Axiom, and that tells—you know, says whether or not you subscribe to HBO. It says whether or not you’re sort of into, you know, hunting activities or sports activities or, you know, outdoors activities, in general, or that kind of thing. And from there, they’re able to sort of, you know, model all of this consumer information to get a sense of what your interests are, you know, whether you’re going to be a Second Amendment voter, whether you’re going to be a reproductive rights voter, whether you’re just sort of a straight-up jobs voter.

You know, throw one of these variables in there, and it’s not entirely clear. But once you start, you know, talking 10 or 20 variables, it’s highly likely that you’re going to be one thing or another. And so, they essentially integrate all of this data into one database and sort of give you a score, you know, on zero to 100 on how likely you are to vote, and then they give you a score on how likely you are to show up. And then, using all of that, they figure out how to approach you, whether to ask you for money or not, whether to ask you to volunteer or not, and, you know, sort of whether to send you mail or not.

AMY GOODMAN: The AP did an exclusive report, “Romney Uses Secretive Data Mining,” a little while ago, talking about: “Building upon its fundraising prowess, Mitt Romney’s campaign began a secretive data-mining project this summer to trove through Americans’ personal information — including their purchasing history and church attendance — to identify new and likely wealthy donors…

“The project employs strategies similar to those [the business world uses] to influence the way Americans shop and think. Now they’re [being used] to sway presidential elections. The same personal data consumers give away — often unwittingly when they swipe their credit cards or log into Facebook — is now being used by the people who might one day occupy the White House.”

And they talk about using a firm tied to Bain & Co., the management consulting firm that Romney once led, called Buxton Co. of Fort Worth, Texas. Tim Murphy, can you elaborate on that?

TIM MURPHY: Yeah. The whole consumer data-mining thing is really something that the consumer, you know, actual business world pioneered, and campaigns were actually really late adapters to that, and they’ve just slowly been playing catch-up. I don’t think there’s anything right now that campaigns do that corporations don’t already. But that shouldn’t—you know, doesn’t mean it’s not troubling or creepy. You know, the big difference now—the big difference between what campaigns do and what corporations do is we sort of have a much different expectation when we’re dealing with campaigns. We expect to sort of be able to, you know, obsessively analyze the candidates and figure out about their past and their voting record and who’s giving money to them. Now they’re basically doing the same thing to us.

AMY GOODMAN: Interesting how candidates, so careful about their own information, deeply data-mining the information of the American public. The New York Times’ big piece this weekend—new details have been revealed on the efforts by Democrats and Republicans to mine American voters’ personal data, the Times reporting the Obama and Romney campaigns are purchasing an unprecedented amount of personal information, including everything from religious ties, interest in pornographic sites, product preferences, financial status, social media affiliations, and whether a voter has gay friends. So, how does pornographic sites relate to 2012 voting?

TIM MURPHY: Well, interestingly enough, I mean, Mitt Romney has sort of pledged quietly that he would do something about pornography, if elected president. So that’s one of those types of things where having that information about the voter really helps candidates say different things to different groups. He’s got some voters that don’t really care about pornography, and he’s got some voters who really cast their vote based on that issue. So being able to sort of separate, you know, which voters care about which issues, based on consumer data that isn’t necessarily freely supplied by voters, makes a big difference for the campaigns in terms of their targeted outreach.

AMY GOODMAN: And Tim, is it shaping the ads that are pummeling the American public right now?

TIM MURPHY: I think it is. It definitely is. One of the—one of the firms that Mitt Romney employs, called Targeted Victory, it’s actually—it was founded or directed by his digital director, Zac Moffatt, and they bragged that they are able to target two completely different ads to two computers in the same household. So they’re able to get that level of specificity.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you say there’s nothing on the level of Target. What was Target’s practices?

TIM MURPHY: Well, Target—and Target is sort of on the cutting edge of consumer data mining. And they—sort of most notably, last year it was reported, I think in the New York Times, that they were able to, based on the various purchasing habits and the search history of one particular female shopper, were able to determine not only that she was pregnant, but when she was due, before her father even knew. And, you know, they bragged about this. They thought that was really great, what they had done. The campaigns don’t do that. They can’t—a lot of the consumer information that they have is sort of very general. It’s sort of aggregated, and they conclude certain things from it, but, you know, the canvassers don’t have, you know, access to your browser history or that kind of thing. So they—they are sort of wary—

AMY GOODMAN: And she was 14.

TIM MURPHY: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And so, that’s the sort of invasiveness that we’re talking about. The campaigns are sort of wary of being perceived that way.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tim Murphy, I want to thank you very much for being with this, reporter at Mother Jones, his article, “Inside the Obama Campaign’s Hard Drive,” and we will link to it at democracynow.org.

And that does it for our show. We’re continuing our 100-city Silenced Majority 2012 Election tour with live coverage of the second presidential debate here in New York. It’s at Hofstra University on Long Island. We’ll be broadcasting Tuesday night. You can go to democracynow.org or see if your radio or television station is airing it. And then on Wednesday morning, we’ll be broadcasting the debate on Democracy Now! and including third-party candidates Jill Stein of the Green Party, Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party and Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party, so far. Then we head to St. Cloud, Minnesota on Wednesday night, 7:00 p.m. at the Kimberly R. Ritsche Auditorium, St. Cloud State University. Thursday, we’ll be in Nevada City, California, 7:00 p.m. and at the Miners Foundry Cultural Center, Spring Street; then Friday night at 8:00 p.m. at the Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles. Then we’re on to Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Santa Cruz; and on Sunday, to Sebastopol and to Oakland. Details at tour.democracynow.org.

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