nerdniks are watching you

Karl Rove: Republicans are looking at up to 450 data points about each US household

June 27, 2013
June 27, 2013

US political campaigns are assembling ever-more-sophisticated databases on US voters in what’s become a heated technology arms race. So says Karl Rove, the election uber-strategist for the Republican Party.

Speaking this morning at the Aspen Ideas Festival (co-organized by Quartz’s sister publication The Atlantic), Rove discussed in some detail  how it works:

“In the Republican case, they take up to 450 pieces of household-level of information about you in order to develop three numbers: how likely are you to vote, how persuadable are you, and then a complex algorithm for every voter and non-voter—everyone registered and everybody unregistered—that describes your view of the world, what’s important to you and how do you think about things, what will motivate you.”

Campaigns then use that data to target individual voters with specific messages, or calls or visits from campaign volunteers. Rove said that Republicans were earlier to use such technology, but a contributing factor to president Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election was Democrats’ “dynamic micro-targeting” of voters. Rove said that this allowed Democrats to identify on-the-fly how news and campaign developments could sway specific voters, while the Republicans’ campaign modeling was more fixed.

Dynamic micro-targeting sounds a lot like what corporations use to show web users advertisements tailored to their browsing and shopping habits. And marketers have for years been assembling large databases with detailed profiles of people in order to better sell them stuff. But the election campaigns’ escalating collection and analysis of hundreds of data points about each voter—or non-voter—is unlikely to soothe any Americans already anxious about their privacy.

Rove said research suggested that Obama could have gained an extra 1.6% of the vote thanks to Democrats’ savvy use of data in 2012. That alone wasn’t what swung the ultimate outcome, but it was an advantage Rove is eager to eliminate.

“I am determined that we go out and beat their sorry asses into the ground in the same way,” he said. A chief Republican weapon is “a group of nerdniks out of Silicon Valley led by one of the chief engineers of Facebook,” he added. Earlier this month the Republican National Committee said it had hired Andy Barkett, a Facebook engineering manager and Google alum, as its chief technology officer.

(For more on the Democrats’ technologists, it’s worth reading Alex Madrigal’s excellent earlier coverage in The Atlantic.)

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