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Targeted Marketing: Good for Elections, Bad for Government

Technology has opened the door to a shift in campaign strategy: Now, you can win small. The problem is, you have to govern big.

As Alastair Croll wrote for the O’Reilly Radar in February: “After JFK, you couldn’t win an election without television. After Obama, you couldn’t win an election without social networking. I predict that in 2012, you won’t be able to win an election without big data.”

If Mr. Croll was right, then the irony—and in fact, the real worry—is that big data has made our politics small. Here’s how.

A campaign today, like any sophisticated marketer or advertiser, has unprecedented ability to collect every last piece of information about each of us, including our name, age, gender; what we “like,” what we buy, who our friends are; our home address, our email address, our IP address. Hundreds of data points on each of over 250 million registered voters are gleaned from both publicly available and purchased sources such as social graphs, census data, tax records, and commercial data.

The power in this expanse of data is its ability to make person-level predictions about likely consumer (or voting) behavior. In turn, this allows campaigns to market a unique product to each individual, with the right message through the right medium at the right time. The power of big data is its ability to make the world small.

This power, in itself, is neither novel nor particularly concerning—we interact in small, individualized ways all the time, thanks to big data. If we stream a film on Netflix or buy a book on Amazon, those companies are leveraging huge product-attribute datasets and ratings of millions of users to help us make just the right purchase. If we search a term on Google or check our Facebook newsfeed, those companies are similarly personalizing the millions of possible results to deliver the most satisfying and engaging experience. The world, through our own eyes, can look like a pretty great place.

And so it is with politics. A campaign volunteer today can knock on my door knowing that I am a small business owner with a college degree and speak earnestly to me about how national healthcare policy affects employers, and that same volunteer can then walk next door and explain to my real estate broker neighbor a plan to reset tax policy and recover the anemic housing sector. These pitches are focused, efficient, likely to be well-received, and overall seem like a pretty good thing.

The problem with this approach is that, in the act of electing a candidate, we don’t just “purchase” him or her, like we would a DVD from Netflix or a novel from Amazon. Electing a candidate turns him or her into something else; specifically, into an official. An official who must now govern.

If you believe the purpose of government is in large part the provision and management of public goods—in other words, if you believe its function should reside in a place above any one individual or even a small coalition of individuals—then you immediately see the disconnect. An administration that must repay its (not “the,” but “its”) electorate by keeping specific promises to specific groups will have a very difficult time pushing forward big ideas or sweeping reforms or comprehensive agendas. And the fundamental role of government, in the modern transaction, gets lost.

We can see some of the ramifications already, in unprecedented polarization and rock-bottom levels of confidence in Congress’ ability to find any common ground on which to solve any one of the very large problems we face in this country today. But if the quickest route to public office is via a sophisticated micro-targeting operation, why bother marshaling support for initiatives that speak to us as a people and rise to the challenges we experience as a nation?

On this Election Day, tonight’s results may well turn on our newest political technology. The next administration should be conscious to move its practices while in power past this big data victory if it’s going to avoid governing small.

Photo courtesy of Sage Ross.