End the duopoly

Collect Data, Influence Votes: ‘If Then’ Traces The Genesis Of Data-Driven Politics


A collection of current and past presidential advertising materials hang on a wall in the visitor center of the New Hampshire State House in Concord, N.H. Decades before Google or Facebook existed, a Madison Avenue advertising man started a company called Simulmatics based on a then revolutionary method of using computers to forecast how people would behave.

Formed in 1959, Simulmatics charged clients a hefty fee to access its “people machine” — a computer program that drew on polling information and behavioral science in order to mathematically predict the impact of an advertising pitch or political message.

The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore writes about Simulmatics in her new book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. She describes company founder Ed Greenfield as a “small time operator” with an interest in liberal causes.

“He was a very devoted liberal … and got into political consulting, which is what a lot of advertising agencies had done, mostly for Republicans,” Lepore says. “But Greenfield wanted to bring political consulting to Democrats.”

Simulmatics began working for the Democratic National Committee ahead of the 1960 election. Based on data prediction models, company analysts advised John F. Kennedy, then a longshot candidate, to take a stronger […]

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