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The Joys Of Data-mining

James Verini has a genuinely fascinating piece in Vanity Fair about Aristotle, Inc., the premier political data-mining firm in the country. (As Richard Viguerie tells it, "It's not just that their list [containing detailed information on 175 million voters] is good—they're considered to have the only list."):

"What we do is help a campaign run more and more like an effective business," [Aristotle CEO John Aristotle] Phillips says as he types on his laptop, bringing up on a large projection screen the profile of an actual voter in Atlanta, whom we'll call John Smith.

Phillips hits a button and up pops Smith's basic information—address, phone number, etc. A click of the mouse brings more personal information—his photograph, his age and occupation, the names of his adult family members, his party affiliation and approximate income. Another click summons the exact amounts of political donations he has made. Phillips clicks once more, and a kind of molecular model appears on-screen, showing every political donor and potentially influential person Smith is linked to, in Atlanta and beyond, with dozens of interlocking nodes. Each node leads to the profile of another voter, about whom Aristotle knows just as much or more.

Back in 1999, Dana Milbank wrote a TNR piece on the dawn of the "customized campaign" that described Aristotle as a small startup working with AOL to "create ads that appear only on the screens of those computer users the campaigns wish to reach." Since then, the firm's grown massively: playing a key role in Bush's '04 victory  (helping, for instance, the campaign march into union neighborhoods in Ohio and identify voters upset about gay marriage); tilting the 2001 mayoral race in Los Angeles for James Hahn at the last minute (really); and helping Viktor Yuschenko uncover election fraud in Ukraine's 2004 election.

Sadly, we never learn which candidates in '08 have the best micro-targeting shops (for the record, most of Aristotle's clients are Republicans). All we really know is that the technique's advanced far beyond what happened in '04: "Obama and other candidates now have the ability to custom-tailor cable-television ads down to the Zip Code in Iowa, or send a canvasser to a voter's doorstep armed with a computer-generated picture of that person's political personality." Good times. Of course, those hefty databases raise all sorts of concerns about privacy and "political redlining"—the ability of campaigns to ignore voters who either don't donate or vote in dependable blocs.

One telling bit, though, comes when Phillips explains why he's so secretive and rarely talks to the press: "It doesn't benefit our clients for them to see a newspaper story about how great our technology is. Every campaign that we work with wants you to believe that it's shoe leather that wins the race, or great issues, or the love of the people, but the fact of the matter is a lot of it is the nitty-gritty organization."

--Bradford Plumer