The Numerati

Funny how old associations come up. About two weeks ago, I was up near Tysons Corner for an appointment. I was early so I dropped by the Borders across the street. As I was waiting for the cashier with my CD of bluesman John Lee Hooker, I noticed one of those stand-up photo advertisements. The face looked awfully familiar.

It was. It was Steve Baker, a BusinessWeek senior writer with whom I have worked off and on for 20 years. He was in Mexico City when I was in Moscow and later he was in Pittsburgh while I was in Cleveland. The latter association brought on occasional barroom discussions of rust belt economics and the many sins of our New York editors.

Steve’s done very well. The ad was for an excellent book he’s just published about “The Numerati,” a class of math experts who quietly orchestrate the massaging of the zillions of bits of data about us. We generate the stuff every time we use our cell phones or search Google, use a grocery loyalty card or whisk through a toll booth using a Smarttag.

Steve, who has specialized in technology reporting for more than a decade, draws intriguing portraits of the numbers class, many of whom are non-Americans from Syria, Pakistan, or France. How they use the tremendous cache of data about us will make a huge difference in our future lives.

Even in Virginia. In his section on politics, Steve zeroes in on how pollsters and campaign officials used and massaged data in the state gubernatorial race in 2005 to get money or reach out to undecided and critically important voters. How such data will be gathered and analyzed will be extremely important in the tight presidential race this year between Barack Obama and John McCain, especially in the Old Dominion, which is a swing state. Data management will probably be less important in the Mark Warner versus Jim Gilmore senatorial contest, as an outcome favorable to the Democrat seems preordained.

Steve notes that overall, the Republicans set the standard for “political micro targeting” in 2004. They framed those election issues well, cleared away excessive verbiage and spent millions on polling to unearth their target voters, Steve writes. A lot of this is covered in a 2006 book titled named “Applebee’s America” that was written by an aide to GOP strategist Karl Rove.

It’s no mean feat to track the political feelings of often fickle voters. The Numerati have come up with their own special nomenclature to help identify them. These include such terms as “Still Waters” (relatively uncommitted, idealistic Democrats), “Hearth Keepers” (stick to family and faith values but resent attempts to make political hay from them) or “Inner Compass” (like fitness in the physical, moral and financial sense).

My personal favorite are the “Right Clickers,” which are conservative Republicans or Libertarians so adept at using computers that they automatically click on the right side of the mouse to immediately go to more sophisticated navigation. Gee, doesn’t that describe about 99 percent of Bacons Rebellion readers and columnists, except for me of course?

The trick is to use the usual tools such as commonly sold data -- magazine subscriptions, political leanings in zip codes, etc. -- and tease out what people believe, even if they haven't decided yet.

Steve reports that Tim Kaine used these methods to great success in his 2005 gubernatorial campaign. Here’s an excerpt:

In a 2005 governor’s race in Virginia, for example, every single voter in the race received a ‘likelihood score’ from zero to 100, that he or she would vote for the Democratic candidate Tim Kaine. The inscrutable Subaru driver (suggesting liberal sentiments) I just described might rate a 50. This scoring system made targeting easy. The Kaine campaign wrote off the voters with low scores. And they hardly bothered with those registering scores of 90 or above (except as potential donors). That would preach to the choir and be a waste of resources. Instead, they focused on promising swing voters, those with scores from 55 to 75. ‘If you were a 60, you were getting communicated with. We were all over you,’ recalls Kaine’s victorious campaign manager, Mike Henry.”

The problem, Steve continues, was that Kaine’s team couldn’t stop at the first tagging of their voter prospects. Once they identified the mass of potential swing votes, they had to drill down farther in the data mine for greater detail.

It’s not simple. For instance, one subgroup called the “Civic Sentries” are righteous, free-market social conservative types who want to protect what they consider U.S. values such as self-reliance. Yet, they might still back increasing the minimum wage because it helps hard-working families make a living thus achieving one of their virtuous goals.

“In the Virginia race,” Steve writes, “Kaine’s team had to pick issues that would appeal to all of these swing groups. Following a large voter survey, they focused on better schools and wider roads.” (Geez, doesn’t that sound familiar after all the hub-bub over the General Assembly’s no-tax mossbacks and the mayhem over House Bill 3202 and those unconstitutional regional tax authorities to raise money for roads, not to mention Kaine’s fruitless special legislative sessions on road payment issues.)

Steve says that Henry claims that data mining will be even more sophisticated in the Warner-Gilmore race. Henry told me in a telephone call that he can’t really discuss what has been advanced until after the election but he said that the basic methods are the same and, “It’s continuing to build capacity.” Asked if the Republican candidate Gilmore uses similar data mining techniques, he said, “I don’t know, they don’t have a lot of assets.”

We won’t know what’s up with Warner until after the November election. But suffice it to say that electronic mining and targeting continue to play ever-growing roles in politics. Obama has run a very electronic-heavy campaign which might help explain why he has out raised and outspent McCain by a margin of about two to one.

Meanwhile, check out Steve’s book, published by Houghton Mifflin and available online, of course.

Comments are closed.