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Battleground-state Bedfellows

A friend and I went canvassing for Hillary in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, last weekend in the picturesque village of Doylestown, its streets lined with neon-bright autumn trees. Each of us clutched a clipboard with a list of names and addresses supplied by the local Democratic HQ.


Aimée and I are veteran Obama canvassers: we volunteered in this same battleground state for the past two presidential elections. It didn’t take us long to realize, though, that something was different this time around. While most of the names on our lists were of Democrats, a certain number were just Democrat-ish, for want of a better term. And a surprising number proved to be real life, card-carrying Republicans.

Other households seemed mixed, with outlier members — GOP (Grand Old Party) parents, say, with Democratic kids. One baby-clutching wife said she’d be voting for Hillary; her husband — a self-described “committed conspiracy theorist” — said “Absolutely not!” (Their infant, presumably, was undecided.)

One name on the list was of a youthful member — the canvassing list provides targets’ ages, too — of a large Trump-supporting clan. Apparently, he was inclining toward Clinton, a lone island in a roiling sea. (He wasn’t home, and his family didn’t seem inclined to chat.)

So had we been given a list of soft targets, ones where one member might be Hillary-leaning; others not?  It began to seem so. We were there, ideally, to tip the scale. It was as if we were human drones, deployed by distant technicians, zipping through the fall foliage and crisp autumn air towards precise targets.

As we moved among these cherry-picked supporters, either actual or potential — asking them if they’d like to volunteer, knew where to vote, and more — they often reacted with questions of their own. Mainly, it was:  “How did you get my / her / his name?” We had a query, too, one we whispered between ourselves.  How had these well-camouflaged, below-the-radar Hillary supporters been pinpointed so precisely?

The answer is Big Data analytics, of course, and specifically microtargeting, which now drives campaigns.  Your database begins with the obvious — your voting record, for example — then moves on to more specific data, such as your club memberships, gun licenses, the magazines you subscribe to, the causes you support. Did you defend Hillary in an online forum of fellow Republicans? Retweet an anti-fracking remark? Free-associate with a telephone marketer? Your database absorbed the news.

Microtargeting is hardly an unknown phenomenon. Still, it was amazing to feel its power as directly as we did. And its sophistication, its ability to sniff out a potential defector in a Trump-preferring crowd, was stunning.

Later, chatting with Josh, the impressive young footsoldier who heads the Doylestown Clinton Campaign HQ, we learned that the Dems are way further along in microtargeting than the GOP. Clinton has run before, as he pointed out, and has all that delicious data from her last campaign to work with. And it’s building on the sophisticated marketing tools that, famously, were said to give Obama such a big data advantage, particularly in his first campaign.

That gap has since closed somewhat. But a report in Politico this week suggests that it will soon widen further. According to the story, the Clinton campaign has just resuscitated a controversial tool the Obama team used in its reelection campaign, one that gives access to the Facebook friend and contact lists of those supporters who choose to disclose them.

This same tool also suggests targeted messages Clinton supporters can share with their Facebook contacts.  “We know voters are more likely to take an action if they’ve been compelled to do so by their friends,” Teddy Goff, lead digital strategist for her campaign, explained.

Four years back, the social media site yanked the feature, citing privacy concerns. There’s no indication why they’ve allowed it to return for Hillary. But surely the Donald’s team regrets the move? Its campaign app seems primitive by comparison: its rudimentary tools include a one-size-fits-all post that supporters can share with their Facebook friends, encouraging them to “Join the Trump train.”

Given this unsubtle approach, it seems unlikely that Republican ground troops are being sent, as we were — tiptoeing, of course — behind the front lines.

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