The Presidential Campaigns Know What You're Reading Online

The Atlantic
The Presidential Campaigns Know What You're Reading Online
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The Presidential Campaigns Know What You're Reading Online

Whether you like it or not, the Obama and Romney campaigns have been using cookies and data miners to track what you're up to on the web. You know when those phone jockeys from Obama for America or Romney for President catch you at home working on your fantasy football team? Chances are they probably know all about your fantasy football habits and your voting record and your friends and your porn habits. This is the hyperconnected 21st-century, after all. Even your political machine can be personalized.

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The New York Times offered a somewhat chilling peek inside the data science that's at the core of both the Romney and Obama campaigns on Sunday. In truth, what the presidential campaigns are doing isn't much different than what companies like Target and Capital One have been doing for years. When you visit their site, they drop a little cookie into your browser that follows you around the web and reports back on what you've been up to. According to The Times, these cookies can tell if you're looking at religious sites and then when you go back to the campaign site, it can green you with a religious message. The data gets even more detailed than that:

Officials at both campaigns say the most insightful data remains the basics: a voter's party affiliation, voting history, basic information like age and race, and preferences gleaned from one-on-one conversations with volunteers. But more subtle data mining has helped the Obama campaign learn that their supporters often eat at Red Lobster, shop at Burlington Coat Factory and listen to smooth jazz. Romney backers are more likely to drink Samuel Adams beer, eat at Olive Garden and watch college football.

The practice of data mining isn't a complete mystery. Mother Jones published a feature about Obama's data team and the use of tracking cookies that corroborates a lot the claims in the Times report. In fact, according to Mother Jones reporter Tim Murphy, it was the Obama campaign that blazed the trail on tracking voters, and Romney hustled to put a data team together after he won the primary.

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Both reports are worth reading in full if you're curious about why the Romney campaign volunteer you talked to on the phone last night knew your dead cat Vincent's life story. Of course, both campaigns swear that they're respecting people's privacy. "You don't want your analytical efforts to be obvious because voters get creeped out," a Romney campaign official told The Times. "A lot of what we're doing is behind the scenes."

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