Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Data Mining the Election...

It might come as a surprise to most people to hear that the most important element in this week's midterm elections was not the quality of the candidates, nor their policy positions, but rather it was... DATA MINING?!

That's right. The big secret in Washington political circles these days is that data mining is the key to electoral success. For those of you less computer literate, data mining is the process of using computers to automatically search through large volumes of data for patterns such as association rules. Better data mining leads to better information on voter tendencies and behavior.

Starting in 2002, Karl Rove and the Republican Party really began using data mining techniques to sift through all kinds of information on registered voters. As the Houston Chronicle described, the Republicans implemented its now famous 72-hour-program just before an election aimed at identifying likely Republican voters and getting them to the polls - all with the assistance of data mining to make the identification process more efficient.

For example, the GOP might use data mining "to calculate whether a certain voter in a particular district owned a snowmobile and was therefore a likely Republican voter, then targeting the prospect with a narrow political message". Then using that data, they would, for instance, look "for snowmobile owners and [let] them know that Democrats want to close down their trails," said John Fortier of the American Enterprise Institute.

Does this really make a difference? You bet. Especially in close elections, voter turnout is typically the single largest factor in deciding the outcome of elections. As Kevin Cornwell describes in his blog, Karl Rove has clearly demonstrated in the 2002, 2004, and even this 2006 election that "using data mining techniques to target voters that would otherwise have been overlooked really can swing [an electoral outcome] by few percentage points".

So the next time you listen to political pundits on cable TV talk about why so-and-so won the election and why so-and-so lost, and they lament the failings and espouse the virtues of the two political parties, just remember that data mining, of all things, at least to some extent, trumps them all.

Yet another reason why computer scientists are taking over the world.


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