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Complex science, simple goal

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By Michael Smerconish
Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, 9:00 p.m.

Target wrote the book on targeting.

The retail giant utilizes what's called “predictive analytics” to influence the purchasing habits of its customers. And now, that same level of sophistication is shaping our political campaigns as they seek to drive their voters to the polls Nov. 6.

Two books tell the story when read in tandem. The first is Charles Duhigg's “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business,” which reveals how Target assigns its clients a code, referred to internally as a Guest ID, which tracks what we buy. What data does Target collect? Age. Marital status. Home address and commute time to the store. Credit card preference. And web choices, to name a few.

This can be powerful information if used together with other details that are available for purchase, including “ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you've ever declared bankruptcy or gotten a divorce, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce,” Duhigg wrote for The New York Times Magazine.

“In the last decade or so, our understanding of the science of habit formation has been completely transformed,” he told me in a subsequent interview in March.

Most of our “decisions ... actually are habits,” Duhigg told me.

When I said data mining could have great applicability to the political process, he said: “It's funny you should mention that.” Duhigg told me that the Obama campaign had hired a chief scientist who comes from the habit-formation world.

Which brings me to Sasha Issenberg and his new book, “Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns,” or as Politico calls it, “the Moneyball of Politics.”

Gone are the days when getting out the vote simply involved party committee people working with street lists of registered voters whom they sought to mobilize strictly based on their party registration, says the former writer for Philadelphia Magazine and The Boston Globe.

“Now databases have gotten so good in politics that every time a campaign is contacting you — every time a committee person or ward leader or a volunteer is knocking on a door asking you, do you plan to vote, who do you plan to vote for and what issues are important to you — that information is not getting thrown out on a clipboard at the end of the year but is sticking around. Now there are thousands of data points on each voter.

“You can run these complex statistical models, basically algorithms, that will give campaigns the confidence that they can predict ... to a percentage probability how likely you are to vote, who you're going to vote for, and what issues you're likely to care about.”

Change has come, Issenberg says, because “all of a sudden people in politics realized, ‘Wait, we can go and measure what we're doing — we can disentangle cause and effect.'”

No wonder they call it political “science.”

Michael Smerconish writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer.



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