This may paint me as a bit of a geek to say, but I thought the most interesting part of Ryan Lizza's latest New Yorker opus on Barack Obama, the candidate that Lizza did more than any other writer to push into the 2008 race, was on the Obama campaign's use of microtargeting data:
If Hillary Clinton wins in Iowa, she will be harder to stop in later contests....While Waliser was teaching the intricacies of caucus-night mechanics, a thousand miles away, in Washington, D.C., an array of forty-eight computer processors were mining census demographics, consumer-marketing data, and Iowa-state voter files to form one of the most sophisticated and data-rich portraits of an electorate ever created. This is the work of Ken Strasma, who is among the Democratic Party’s most admired numbers gurus. After being pursued by all the major candidates, Strasma, who helped Kerry to win Iowa in 2004, decided to commit his firm, Strategic Telemetry, to Obama.
In the nineteen-nineties, consultants loved to talk about finely sliced pieces of the electorate pie, such as “soccer moms,” and seemed to discover new segments of the electorate as if they were minor planets in the Kuiper belt. In 2000 and 2004, campaigns used consumer data to work out simple correlations in order to target voters. (For instance, Prius owners tend to vote for Democrats, while S.U.V. owners tend to vote for Republicans.) In the past few years, though, this so-called “micro-targeting technology” has made great leaps forward. Strasma’s firm builds profiles of voters that include more than a thousand indicators, long strings of data—everything from income to education to pet ownership—that he calls “demographic DNA.”
“The actual combinations that we come up with aren’t really anything that you could put on a bumper sticker,” Strasma told me. “You know, soccer moms or office-park dads. Sometimes people will ask to see the formula, and it comes out to ten thousand pages long.” When the demographic DNA is combined with polling and interviews with Iowa voters, Strasma is able to create the political equivalent of a FICO score—the number that creditors use to determine whether a consumer is a good bet to repay a loan. Strasma’s score tells the campaign of the likelihood that a specific Iowan will support Obama.
This points to a major difference between the Hillary Clinton and Obama campaigns. The Clinton campaign's chief strategist, Mark Penn, is out with a book on microtargeting, Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes, that has made him the butt of countless nasty blogospheric comments and media reviews, while Obama's team is quietly using a top Democratic firm to do the very same thing. Obama's rhetoric may be different from Clinton's, but the baseline architecture of his campaign is not just a textbook, it's the next edition of that textbook that's not out in stores yet.