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Winning at all costs

21 November 2012 By Edward Hadas

Barack Obama did not win the election because more Americans thought he would be a better president than Mitt Romney. More Americans voted for the incumbent than for the challenger, but it is Obama’s superior campaign organisation, and not his personal appeal, that deserves most of the credit. In particular, his product managers were better than Romney’s at using the technique of “data mining”.

The technique, pioneered by supermarkets, is conceptually simple: measure everything and tweak as necessary. In practice, it is a delicate affair. Suppose a popular soft drink has 4 percent higher sales when it is stocked next to a salty snack than when healthier raisins are its shelf-neighbour. Should shelf locations be swapped? There are many variables: the effect on sales of salty snacks and raisins, the profit margins of the different products, and customers’ sensitivity to any price changes. Most of the effects are tiny, but the study of millions of data, including a large number of computer simulations, can increase a retailer’s revenue and profit by a few percent.

In elections, data mining can bring votes to candidates and can increase the supply of contributions which pay for vote-gaining advertising. The work is detailed. Time magazine reports that the Obama campaign carefully tested how much more likely undecided voters in each close state were to yield to the blandishments of local rather than to out-of-state volunteers. The superiority in detailed computer work – “We ran the election 66,000 times every night”, as one expert explained to Time – probably gave Obama a few more percentage points of votes than Romney. It was the margin of victory.

Is data mining good, bad or ethically neutral? Supermarket executives may say that the practice is good because it increases profit, but profit should not be the only goal of any company. A more nuanced judgment is appropriate. The careful study of purchase patterns is truly valuable insofar as it helps consumers shop more wisely and helps stores reduce wasteful investment in inventory. It is pernicious insofar as it manipulates consumers into buying things they do not or should not really want. By this higher standard, commercial data mining is at best a mixed blessing.

In politics, political data mining would clearly be a good thing if votes were all that mattered. In the terminology of marketing, this scientific electioneering is a proven, cost-efficient method of improving electoral outcomes. However, an election is supposed to be quite a different matter from a contested retail market or a sporting event. The candidates’ goal should not be to win at any cost, but to help voters shape the nation’s future by giving them a clear choice of policies and philosophy.

Data mining subverts this higher goal of democracy, leaving serious debate about the common good by the wayside. Instead, it helps candidates garner votes through the tailoring of messages and the manipulation of tastes and emotions. Rather than offer strong arguments and serious thought, politicians offer voters what the surveys say they want to hear, even if that means presenting different policies to different groups of voters.

Of course, observers have been complaining about the intellectual vacuity and slippery rhetoric of political campaigns for as long as there have been democratic governments. The merger of political campaigns with consumer marketing may be no more than another step along this road, but it is definitely a step in the wrong direction.

The rise of data mining fits all too well with two pernicious trends in American democracy. First, the improved statistical techniques increase the efficiency of spending and thus the importance of fund-raising. So while the Center for Responsive Politics’ estimates of spending show the same proportion of GDP was spent on the 2008 and 2012 elections, the donors’ influence on the candidates’ views and future policies was undoubtedly greater this time around.

Second, American presidents have increasingly taken on the numinous aura once associated with royalty. They and their families receive reverential treatment. They feel obliged to make wonderful promises – of prosperity, national glory and the easy resolution of intractable problems – which they cannot possibly keep. Data mining leads to more reliance on such magical thinking, because it shows that voters are more easily influenced by the projection of personal charisma than by more rational techniques of persuasion.

The technique also encourages a particularly bland and duplicitous variety of charisma-promotion. The numbers always show that strong views cost more votes than they gain, and that people crave the feeling that politicians are listening to them and will not disagree with them. In due course, originally unpopular views might be able to gain adherents, but politicians who follow the short-term advice from the endless stream of detailed data analysis do not have enough time to educate voters.

The economy is too central to modern society for economics to be apolitical or for politics to be totally non-economic. Still, commercial thinking lowers the political tone. Data mining has made American politics less democratic.


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