Candidates as consumer products

November 21, 2012

Barack Obama did not win the election because more Americans thought he would be a better president than Mitt Romney. More Americans voted for the incumbent than for the challenger, but it is Obama’s superior campaign organisation, and not his personal appeal, that deserves most of the credit. In particular, his product managers were better than Romney’s at using the technique of “data mining”.

The technique, pioneered by supermarkets, is conceptually simple: measure everything and tweak as necessary. In practice, it is a delicate affair. Suppose a popular soft drink has 4 percent higher sales when it is stocked next to a salty snack than when healthier raisins are its shelf-neighbour. Should shelf locations be swapped? There are many variables: the effect on sales of salty snacks and raisins, the profit margins of the different products, and customers’ sensitivity to any price changes. Most of the effects are tiny, but the study of millions of data, including a large number of computer simulations, can increase a retailer’s revenue and profit by a few percent.

In elections, data mining can bring votes to candidates and can increase the supply of contributions which pay for vote-gaining advertising. The work is detailed. Time magazine reports that the Obama campaign carefully tested how much more likely undecided voters in each close state were to yield to the blandishments of local rather than to out-of-state volunteers. The superiority in detailed computer work – “We ran the election 66,000 times every night”, as one expert explained to Time – probably gave Obama a few more percentage points of votes than Romney. It was the margin of victory.

Is data mining good, bad or ethically neutral? Supermarket executives may say that the practice is good because it increases profit, but profit should not be the only goal of any company. A more nuanced judgment is appropriate. The careful study of purchase patterns is truly valuable insofar as it helps consumers shop more wisely and helps stores reduce wasteful investment in inventory. It is pernicious insofar as it manipulates consumers into buying things they do not or should not really want. By this higher standard, commercial data mining is at best a mixed blessing.

In politics, political data mining would clearly be a good thing if votes were all that mattered. In the terminology of marketing, this scientific electioneering is a proven, cost-efficient method of improving electoral outcomes. However, an election is supposed to be quite a different matter from a contested retail market or a sporting event. The candidates’ goal should not be to win at any cost, but to help voters shape the nation’s future by giving them a clear choice of policies and philosophy.

Data mining subverts this higher goal of democracy, leaving serious debate about the common good by the wayside. Instead, it helps candidates garner votes through the tailoring of messages and the manipulation of tastes and emotions. Rather than offer strong arguments and serious thought, politicians offer voters what the surveys say they want to hear, even if that means presenting different policies to different groups of voters.

Of course, observers have been complaining about the intellectual vacuity and slippery rhetoric of political campaigns for as long as there have been democratic governments. The merger of political campaigns with consumer marketing may be no more than another step along this road, but it is definitely a step in the wrong direction.

The rise of data mining fits all too well with two pernicious trends in American democracy. First, the improved statistical techniques increase the efficiency of spending and thus the importance of fund-raising. So while the Center for Responsive Politics’ estimates of spending show the same proportion of GDP was spent on the 2008 and 2012 elections, the donors’ influence on the candidates’ views and future policies was undoubtedly greater this time around.

Second, American presidents have increasingly taken on the numinous aura once associated with royalty. They and their families receive reverential treatment. They feel obliged to make wonderful promises – of prosperity, national glory and the easy resolution of intractable problems – which they cannot possibly keep. Data mining leads to more reliance on such magical thinking, because it shows that voters are more easily influenced by the projection of personal charisma than by more rational techniques of persuasion.

The technique also encourages a particularly bland and duplicitous variety of charisma-promotion. The numbers always show that strong views cost more votes than they gain, and that people crave the feeling that politicians are listening to them and will not disagree with them. In due course, originally unpopular views might be able to gain adherents, but politicians who follow the short-term advice from the endless stream of detailed data analysis do not have enough time to educate voters.

The economy is too central to modern society for economics to be apolitical or for politics to be totally non-economic. Still, commercial thinking lowers the political tone. Data mining has made American politics less democratic.


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A very sad reflection on the quality of the education system for the last 4 decades. Choosing the Leader of the Free world has become akin to buying a bag of chips and a soda. All of this is quite noticeable through the shenanigans inside the beltway. Noble Peace Prize..? aisle “on sale with coupon”.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

False alarm?
Maybe it’s better that the ‘Leader of the Free World’ and ‘Commander in Chief’ gets elected through such a rational process, rather than as a result of their own belief in themselves being a ‘Savior’, or a charismatic figure with a ‘Historical Role’ involving ‘Reshaping the Fate of America’ and a lot of pictures showing the candidate’s canines and left/right jaws…

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

Very good observation.
Soon data mining will be used to offer different price to different people (if this has not been done already).

There will be profiles of people being sold to vendors to optimize the offering strategy/algorithm and thus maximize their price.

People will be busy arguing, bargaining, second-guessing, suspecting and negotiating for every single purchase they make instead of actually doing productive things.

Initially I thought that data mining would be used to gather consumer feedback more efficiently so producers can address concerns about their products. It turned out everybody uses it as a marketing and surveillance tool. The whole system seems to gear toward maximizing aggregate consumption than maximizing aggregate efficiency.

If the current order can continue peacefully. Capitalism in the West will soon become mercantilism aided by psychologists and AI surveillance. And the people in the West will soon evolve and look like the Ferengi 😛

The East on the other hand will probably become the Vulcan, except for China. China seems to descend rapidly toward the Romulan.

I will just dim the light and enjoy the show. Hopefully at the end of the show, my brain can enjoy the pleasure of saying “I told you so”, for now
– Pass the popcorn please it’s getting exciting soon –

Posted by trevorh | Report as abusive

It’s certainly better than getting elected by misleading the populace to believe one candidate is a non-american born socialist from Kenya. Sure, whine about a scientific approach, how cold and calculating. Yes, we’d rather just believe in things that have no basis in reality. It must be really tough on the guys that make their living by trickery, because it appears they are going to have a more difficult go of it now.

The real problem, I am guessing, is that the GOP doesn’t have the math skills and rationality to know what any of that information means. You see, the party that hates science needs to learn the rationality of science to do their own data mining. Oh sure, just like every other thing they will be able to fake it enough to convince their base, but not well enough to actual use the same approach as a tool to help them win.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The problem isn’t data mining. It’s people’s fatuous vulnerability to being affected by data mining.

Posted by tripole | Report as abusive

Believe this Bovine Scat at your own peril.

Obama won because the electorate that voted for him was better informed than the portion that didn’t.

The KEY demographic is highly educated urban whites.

They don’t buy sugary soda, they buy low carbohydrate free-trade organic iced tea.

In fact, Romney votes were basically dumb, uneducated white hicks from the Old Confederacy and the few whites-only Midwest states no one lives in.

The rednecks and the old -vs- well, everyone else.

Perhaps data-mining squeezed a vote here or there, but it misses the greater point.

People don’t consume Twinkies like they once did!

Particularly since they know it contains the same ingredients as dry wall.

Posted by Foxdrake_360 | Report as abusive

This article is long on opinion and short on facts. So – running political campaigns smartly should be stopped. No more data mining, advertising, free publicity, phoning voters, polls, rallies, conferences, donations ad infinitum. Rather, each caniditate should simply present a philosphy document. Did it ever occur to anyone that there are parrallels between running a campaign and running a country – that being the ability to do things better than the best competitor availble from 150 million Americans.

Posted by BidnisMan | Report as abusive

It is actually the input within the house which finalizes the result for all the members of that particular house, I agreed with your idea that: “Choosing the Leader of the Free world has become akin to buying a bag of chips and a soda”. As you said: campaigns smartly should be stopped!
The whole ground tune into one direction; when come the process of selecting or deciding the best choice or decision.To win an election like Barack did was actually due to the general inputs which already developed by the campaign Manager and the other responsible members who worked the whole process before time .
Just like when a food is testy, people ask about where the food was cooked. Edward, you are now confirming back to the world: Who prepared and contributed for the winner of the United States of America’ Presidential Candidate.
In another hand “it is the family which makes the child sound and acceptable by many”.
During Presidential Elections, Mitt and Barack were the highest world products.

Posted by Tombeomogga | Report as abusive

It is actually the input within the house which finalizes the result for all the members of that particular house, I agreed with your idea that: “Choosing the Leader of the Free world has become akin to buying a bag of chips and a soda”. As you said: campaigns smartly should be stopped!
The whole ground tune into one direction; when come the process of selecting or deciding the best choice or decision. To win an election like Barack did was actually due to the general inputs which already developed by the campaign Manager and the other responsible members who worked the whole process before time.
Just like when a food is testy, people ask about where the food was cooked. Edward, you are now confirming back to the world: Who prepared and contributed for the winner of the United States of America’ Presidential Candidate.
In another hand “it is the family which makes the child sound and acceptable by many”.
During Presidential Elections, Mitt and Barack were the highest world products.

Posted by Tombeomogga | Report as abusive

Would it be possible to raise the intellectual level of the discussion a little? Those that disagree with the “opinion” article would do their cause some good if they presented the areas they disagree with and some facts as to why the article is wrong. Name calling does not convince anyone of your position. In fact, this simply shows other readers your bias, that your position is probably weak and therefore irrelevant. Please do yourself a favor and try harder with your next post to present your case with factual data.

Posted by capinfergie | Report as abusive

Unfortunately, BOTH candidates were marketed in this way!

So in the final reckoning, the election came down to which team (based on which ideology and execution) did a better job of it.

In the end, the blue team did a better job of the data analysis, communication and coordination… They proved themselves more worthy to govern… Take for example: ology/2012/11/inside-team-romneys-whale- of-an-it-meltdown/
vs. ide-the-secret-world-of-quants-and-data- crunchers-who-helped-obama-win/

Why is this contest of data analysts relevant to the leadership of the free world?

===Government is all about analysis, decision-making, communication, persuasion and coordination. Proving you’re good at winning elections goes a long way toward proving you’re good at governing (though I admit, the two things are not quite the same thing).===

While the data tools of political campaigns have improved over the last 50 years, the fact-checking tools of journalists have grown symmetrically. So, Mr. Hadas; people like you can tame the downside of these voter-manipulation-techniques (by showing the voters in Georgia what the candidates are saying to the voters in New Hampshire); whilst we continue to enjoy the up-side from this new technology. Our politicians can be directed to more effectively take the wishes of the people into account; and journalists like you can help to tame the lunacy of the polling-led messages by showing us the candidates, “warts and all”.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Actually, what needs to be done is adopt a system to present alternate “proposals” to run the country for the next four years comprised of specific goals and their proposed priority for available government revenue. The same could be done on the state, county and municipal levels.

Since this would entail pretty much “starting over again” in terms of “political parties” and lobbying, the “field might actually be level again for a while. Let “candidate program administrators” compete for the privilege of serving their country UNPAID for ONE term, with the finalists and winner(s) selected by professional placement firms who would donate such “services to the country, et al. Oh, yea and require that those selected also devote a reasonable amount of their attention to LONG TERM GOALS which would be possible to tweak to some degree by each new administrator but not to radically change established “direction” absent “national emergency” or “supermajority rejection” of same by the electorate.

Naaaa. Too many sacred cows would have to be sacrificed.

That might get this country back to the idea of genuine citizen interest and participation in the present and future of the country.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Maybe the reason candidates are a kind of consumer product is that modern American life and retailing seem to have made the art of bargaining and negotiating prices with merchants, like they still are is souks in some ME countries, a lost art. I have never been there, have never had to try to do that and frankly wouldn’t know how.

It takes being more than a consumer to do that and one has to be able to judge character, have a sense of the merchants creds and be able to talk back so as not to be taken for a sucker. One has to be able to recognize value and bargains etc. You, apparently, almost have to earn the proprietor’s respect to get the best deal. And it needs a stable population of long term residents, I suspect, to understand the intricacies of the place.

And yet, ironically, issues like consumer protection against defective merchandise and sharp business practice weren’t even mentioned in the debates or seem to be reported as much as even 20 years ago and not in this state.

In many ways, world wide, consumers are pampered sheep deluged with so much merchandise it is mind numbing. We like predictability and established ways of doing business and aren’t really at all creative. Our living and buying patterns are becoming as easy to watch and study as watching an ant farm. We buy our “creativity” in some ways.

The only times where the need to negotiate prices still seems to live in American consumerism seems to be when buying a house or car or in the process of buying the companies that produce the goods.

This country is fed a constant diet of beautiful people and very well managed public images, that looking for any public figures who might not meet media standards (except in local politics where they don’t have to be very good looking) is pointless. The debates seem well screened as though the audience members were potential jurors. Special effects are so good in movies today that it seems, even politics knows how to simulate the look of “reality”. They know so many voters are somewhat challenged in the ability to understand abstractions, that the safest thing to do is never speak specifically enough for the public to really be able to pin them down. Everything in the show is very self conscious.

Candidates are required to spend so much money for campaigns that they won’t say much specifically because the moment they do, the ideas they propose will be sliced and diced and quite possibly killed, before they even get into office. They can’t afford to be authentic when they have to seduce over a hundred million voters to “pick me”. If they are the sum total of all the data they “ate” to become the candidate of their own design, then the country sees an image in that person of all the data he or she metabolized and are seeing a mirror image of themselves in one skin. What the voters really want is for the candidate to vacate his body and let them occupy his position. He almost has to be “the state” like Louis XIV claimed he was, but he has to be more photogenic.

So we get about as deep an understanding of them as their data miners get of the voters. And all the voters ever really see is they as an abstract. It has become a self-reinforcing game of abstractions voting for abstractions. Romney’s great fault was he was still a bit too human and said what he liked and pandered too baldly and didn’t seem to have much consistency. It is seen as obnoxious in a world where so much in the consumer’s life is sanitized, idealized and designed to please an artificial consumer who is an abstraction of millions of other passive and observable consumers. Obama is a slicker chameleon is some ways. Kennedy was a pretty face – Reagan was an actor and his approach has been more the rule. Now the presidential candidates have to be actors more than anything else and Romney wasn’t slick enough to conceal the fact that people were rewriting his lines as he went along. Nixon was homely and we aren’t likely to see a homely president again. A man who looked like Lincoln would scare the audience.

I wonder how easy it would be to assemble such data and analyze patterns in a real souk or more informal market place where people weren’t all quite acting as predictably or as easily observed? It might be much too difficult for a customer in a less predictable and already thoroughly analyzed setting like a grocery or big box store to answer questions about a less self conscious and thought through setting. The products may not all be on the same shelves they usually are or the services and prices may vary so they are not so easily reduced to discrete data. That the consumer is expected to work a bit to get the deal they want. Maybe the country is becoming too efficient and organized to be comfortable to live in and may even be creating far to passive a population.?

Not a system I’d be very well equipped to live in actually. I am so used to the safety and predictability of the modern American mall and commercial strip.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

I never gave to a political contribution before. But the stated positions of Romney and the pre-election positions of ryan and the Tea Party, scared me enough to give several contributions totaling about $700.

The idea of a austerity program at time high unemployment is ridiculous (at such one defaults on debts not pay it off). Wanting to go to a health insurance program that does not cover the sick (they have hard time working and their conditions will be pre-existing soon)is fraud becuase it does not cover the sick. It was stupid because we pay more for it than other nations on real health care.

I admit that both parties have not did any thing about making sure more people go to medical school to get the doctors that will be needed if we have real health care, or build more hospitals. No doctors means high costs and shortages and rationing.

This recession is long enough to be structural both parties do not want to fix the problems.

Most of debt to other nations comes from buying more than we sell. Both parties ignore the problem. The free trade rules make little sense and has not worked for the USA for decades. Should not a nation who imports more than it can pay for (only exports will pay in the long run) not tax imports. Should a nation without much export industries not try to build them (which would be export subsidies in some way). Why should we not buy dumped goods when available after all we could charge higher tariffs on them. The WTO rules prevent nations with trade problems from solving them.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

PS I am not sick and have a job.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

The American public is under-educated about history, past elections, and decisions our politicians have made. We are begging to be lied to, and so we are.

I don’t think the campaign that was better at data collection won this election, true or not. I think there simply were more voters who recognized the dangers of the right-wing fringe elbowing their way into power.

The Republicans went insane this election, and sent a message of hate, social reforms that were largely out of touch with reality, and a bizarre, radical economic policy. Now they’re chicken-scratching to find something – anything – to blame to save face. They just don’t want to admit they were wrong, and outnumbered because of their craziness, and the freak show that led up to the elections.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive