Behavioral analytics … bad when Target does it … OK for political campaigns?

A couple of months ago Target got some bad press when it was revealed that the company was mining customers’ purchase histories to slot them into behavioral groups susceptible to tailored promotional pitches.

For example, Target identified purchases that mothers-to-be made early in their pregnancies – sometimes before they even knew they were pregnant.  Think bigger jeans, skin care lotions.

Many folks railed that it was an example of big brother invasion of privacy.

Well, guess what?

Political campaigns are using the same methods that Target was using

The modern science of politics is increasingly based on principles from behavioral psychology and data analytics.


Campaigns today mine large data bases with mathematical algorithms that slot folks into categories and provide the basis for how people should be approached (or ignored).

According to the WSJ:

Perhaps the most valuable data in modern campaigns comes from statistical “microtargeting” models—the political world’s version of credit scores.

Campaigns gather thousands of data points on voters, culled from what they put on their registration forms, what they have told canvassers who have visited their homes in the past, and information on their buying and lifestyle habits collected by commercial data warehouses.

The campaigns then run algorithms trawling for patterns linking those demographic characteristics to the political attitudes measured in their polling.

Financial institutions run such statistical models to generate predictions about whether a given individual will demonstrate a certain behavior, like paying a bill on time or defaulting on a loan.

Campaigns do the same, only they are interested in predicting political behavior.

So it’s typical now to generate individual scores, presented as a percentage likelihood, that a voter will cast a ballot, support one party or the other, be pro-choice or antiabortion, or respond to a request to volunteer.

These scores now stick to voters as indelibly as credit scores.

And just as a bank officer won’t sign off on a loan without requesting one, a field director for a campaign won’t send a volunteer to a voter’s door without knowing the relevant number.

BTW: It’s Team Obama that’s doing most of this stuff.

Bad for Target … but OK for Obama.


* * * * *

WSJ source: “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns” by Sasha Issenberg

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