In his successful quest to out-fundraise President Obama by many tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars, Mitt Romney has gotten by with a little help from his rich friends like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson. But a new report from AP reveals he has also gotten by with a little help from secret, sophisticated data mining of US citizens’ personal information.
According to AP, the Romney campaign has been working with an analytics firm called Buxton Co., from Fort Worth, TX, which previously performed market research services for a former colleague of Romney’s at Bain Capital.
Buxton sifts through personal data culled from places like credit card transactions and internet browsing like Facebook logins and activity, and parses through it to create profiles and identify “new and likely, wealthy donors.”
Buxton has been so effective at this that they’ve helped the Romney campaign target wealthy donors even in predominantly Democratic neighborhoods. Romney collected “$350,000 this summer around San Francisco in contributions that averaged $400 each.” AP notes that the technique has been crucial to Romney raising his average haul per donor way above Obama’s. As noted earlier, in July 98% of Obama’s donors were small donors, or those contributing under $250, whereas only 25% of Romney’s were under $250. Obama has relied on appealing to a greater number of small donors, while Romney has effectively targeted high-price donors.
Data mining is not illegal—the data Buxton collects is all available publicly, and the fine print of your credit card statements and Facebook terms of service agreements indicate that your personal data can and will shared. Companies routinely use this data to target ads to likely buyers, and psychographic data mining has become key to corporate profits.
AP notes, “The project shows that the same strategies corporations use to influence the way we shop and think are now being used to influence presidential elections,” and notes that the Obama campaign engages in psychographic targeting—just not nearly as effectively, apparently.
Campaigns paying for such services is illegal, however. As of the AP’s report there’s no paper trail showing a cash transaction between the Romney campaign and Buxton. Buxton head Tom Buxton says he’s working with Romney simply to “be on the winning team,” but Romney’s camp epitomizes the ideal of the capitalist shark—these guys don’t know the meaning of the word altruism. It’s simply impossible Buxton won’t be rewarded for his work.
This is what political fundraising has come to: It’s almost like “Inception.” By agreeing to allow our habits to become corporate commodities, we open ourselves to every manner of overt and subtle targeting. The reality is that whomever we elect in November, monied interests will have helped place the choice in our collective consciousness.