The Politics of Big Data

Joe Fiocco-College Associate: Special Report

It’s conventional wisdom now for businesses and political campaigns to have a social media presence. And, pressure is mounting for projects to be “data-driven”. This election cycle will witness some of the most highly targeted advertising campaigns in American politics. Candidates are investing vast resources in collecting voter data to accomplish this, and the implications are startling.

Most notably, Ted Cruz exploited his grassroots network to target voters door-to-door in the Iowa caucus. The Cruz campaign’s mobile app learned the political beliefs of its subscribers through Facebook content. With access to subscribers’ political beliefs as well as their demographic data, Cruz staffers pinpointed the Iowans most receptive to the campaign’s messaging. From there, volunteers started knocking on doors. The app added competition to getting out the vote, rewarding staffers with points for sharing content, recruiting volunteers, or soliciting donations. With this enthusiastic ground game, Ted Cruz defied political logic and carried Iowa. This is especially striking, since Cruz opposed ethanol subsidies, Iowa’s golden calf.

The precision of campaign ad targeting is growing sharper.  Academic studies from the University of Toronto and the University of Minnesota found correlations between personality traits and political beliefs. Voters who valued “openness” leaned liberal, while “conscientious” voters leaned conservative. Analytics firms such as Cambridge Analytica claim to predict how voters will swing based on personality traits.

 In 2014, Cambridge Analytica devised five criteria for assessing voter personality, known as OCEAN: Open, Conscientious, Extrovert, Agreeable, and Neurotic. Over a million participants filled out questionnaires to see where they fell. The firm looked for matches in public commercial data between participants and the general population. Matches provided the basis to predict the personality types of potential voters. Cambridge Analytica found they could tailor emotional messages to individual voters. For example, a neurotic voter will likely engage with an ad highlighting a candidate’s strong stance on national security. Or, a conscientious voter might relate to an ad calling for cutting the national debt. Companies like Cambridge Analytica seem poised to overhaul traditional campaigning, for they served 44 different federal and state GOP campaigns in 2014. The firm is one of 13 such companies designing ads for the RNC and individual GOP candidates this year.

The 2016 election so far has surprised pundits and wonks at every turn. The ability to gain insights from Big Data has made an upset possible in Iowa. Concerns abound as to how politicians will use their newfound knowledge. In the future, political campaigns may be more attentive to specific issues voters care about. Yet, it may be unsettling for candidates to know your fears and desires before you do. And, as always, there will be worries about privacy. Either way, the idea that politicians are out of touch is straying further from the truth.