Catalist, “The 480,” and The Real 480

There has been much discussion recently of Catalist, a database system being used by the Democratic Party to optimally target their electioneering efforts…see Jonathan’s post here.  I’m reminded of Eugene Burdick’s 1964 novel, The 480.  The book’s premise is that a group within the Republican party acquires the services of a computing company called  Simulation Enterprises, intending to apply the latest technology and social sciences research in order to get their candidate elected.  These party insiders have been inspired by the earlier work of the 1960 Kennedy campaign with a company called Simulmatics.

Simulmatics was a real company.  It was founded by MIT professor Ithiel de Sola Pool, a pioneer in the application of computer technology to social science research. Data from 130,000 interviews was categorized into 480 demographic groups, and an IBM 704 computer was used to process this data and predict the likely effects of various alternative political tactics.  One question the company was asked to address by the 1960 Democratic campaign, in the person of Robert F Kennedy, was:  How best to deal with religion?  There was considerable concern among some parts of the electorate about the prospect of choosing a Catholic as President.  Would the JFK campaign do better by minimizing attention to this issue, or would they do better by addressing it directly and condemning as bigots those who would let Kennedy’s faith affect their vote?

Simulmatics concluded that “Kennedy today has lost the bulk of the votes he would lose if the election campaign were to be embittered by the issue of anti-Catholicism.  The simulation shows that there has already been a serious defection from Kennedy by Protestant voters. Under these circumstances, it makes no sense to brush the religious issue under the rug.  Kennedy has already suffered the disadvantages of the issue even though it is not embittered now–and without receiving compensating advantages inherent in it.”  Quantitatively, the study predicted that Kennedy’s direct addressing of the religion issue would move eleven states, totaling 122 electoral votes, away from the Kennedy camp–but would pull six states, worth 132 electoral votes, into the Democratic column.

It is not clear how much this study influenced actual campaign decision-making…but less than three weeks after RFK received the Simulmatics report, JFK talked about faith before a gathering of ministers in Houston.  “I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end,”  Kennedy said,  “where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.” (Burdick’s novel also suggests that the Kennedy campaign used Simulmatics to assess the effects of a more-forthright posture on civil rights by the campaign, and furthermore to analyze Kennedy’s optimal personality projection during the debates–I don’t know if these assertions are historically correct, but the religion analysis clearly was indeed performed.)

Considerable excitement was generated when, after the election, the Simulmatics project became publicly known.  A Harper’s Magazine article referred to to the Simulmatics computer as “the people machine,” and quoted Dr Harold Lasswell of Yale as saying, “This is the A-bomb of the social sciences.  The breakthrough here is comparable to what happened at Stagg Field.”  But Pierre Salinger, speaking for the Kennedy campaign, asserted that “We did not use the machine.”  (Salinger’s statement is called out as a lie in the recent book, The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns.)

In Burdick’s novel, the prospective Republican candidate is John Thatch, head of an international engineering and construction company.  Thatch has achieved popular renown after courageously defusing a confrontation between Indians and Pakistanis over a bridge his company was building, thereby averting a probable war.  Something about Thatch’s personality has struck the public imagination, and–despite his lack of political experience–he looks to be an attractive candidate.  But initially, the Republicans see little hope of defeating the incumbent Kennedy–“the incumbent is surrounded by over four years of honorific words and rituals,” a psychologist explains.  “He seems as though he ought to be President.  He assumes the mantle.”  This outlook is deeply disturbing to a Republican senior statesman named Bookbinder, who strongly believes that defacto 8-year terms are bad for the country…but if it is true that Kennedy is unbeatable, then the best the Republicans can hope to do is lose as well as possible.  Things change when Kennedy is assassinated and the election becomes a real contest.

Bookbinder and Levi, another Republican senior statesman, are introduced to Simulation Enterprises by a young lawyer named Madison (Mad) Curver and his psychologist associate (quoted above), a woman named Dr Devlin.  Mad and Dr Devlin explain that what Sim Enterprises does is different from the work done by garden-variety pollsters like the one they have just met, Dr Cotter:

“The pollster taps only a small fragment of the subject’s mind, attention, background, family influence, and habits.  The Simulations thing, just because it can consider thousands of elements influencing the subject, even things he may not know himself, gets much better results.”

“And one further thing, Book,” Mad said.  “Simulations Enterprises can predict what people will do in a situation which they have never heard of before.  That was the whole point of the UN in the Midwest example.  No one has gone out there and asked them to vote on whether we should get out of the UN, but Dev outlined a procedure by which you can predict how they will react…if they ever do have to vote on it.

Again Bookbinder had the sharp sense of unreality.  Unreal people were being asked invented questions and a result came out on green, white-lined paper…and when you got around to the real people six months later with the real question they would act the way the computer had said they would.


Thatch. the candidate, is an interesting character, similar in some ways to the real Barack Obama and in other ways quite dissimilar. He is rather exotic by 1960s American standards, having grown up largely outside the country, mainly in India where he father was a missionary.  He is married to a Filipino woman who is part Malay and who was in a Japanese prison camp during WWII…the fact that she slept with a guard to get extra rations and avoid starvation was not an issue for Thatch in marrying her, but if it becomes publicly known may derail the campaign.  Thatch is a natural orator, as Obama was perceived to be; unlike Obama, he needs no teleprompter.  And, very much unlike Obama, he has real executive experience.

The older gentlemen Bookbinder and Levi, unlike their young associates Mad and Dev, never really become comfortable with the computerization of the political process…and Thatch himself has concerns about it.

Bookbinder’s mind was torn with conflicting emotions.  For a few minutes, watching the near-riot on the television screen, his enthusiasm for Thatch (and yes, his belief in the man) had soared to ecstatic heights.  Entirely forgotten was his distrust of the techniques that had helped bring Thatch this far, his growing reservations about Mad, his dislike of polls and behavioral scientists and simulations, his basic belief that fine old traditions were being perverted.  The old virus had flared up in him again and made him feverish.  Then, even as he watched the Thatch demonstration come to a boil on the television screen, Thatch’s own voice of the night before interposed–“what if old Joe McCarthy came down the pike and used your new political methods?”–and McCarthy’s hyena face and nervous laugh and evil eyes invaded Bookbinder’s mind and he imagined the dead Senator standing with him at the Simulation Enterprises office on Madison Avenue and watching the tapes and spools and lights and buttons and planning some masterful manipulation of the American public so that it would embrace his kind of madness.

To the extent that Catalist really had any significant influence on the  re-election of Barack Obama, and the electoral victories of other members of the Democratic Party’s “progressive” wing,  I think we could conclude that Bookbinder’s nightmare has come true.  Although surely, Catalist is just one factor–and probably not the most important–among many of the many things which work to the advantage of the Democrats:  the compliant media, the group-thinking academics, the use of outright electoral fraud, etc etc.

The NYT published at least 2 book reviews of “The 480,” neither to them very positive.  The review by Oliver Prescott asserts that the book is “too artificial, too contrived, and too superficial.”  Prescott thought the following assertion by a psychologist in the novel:

“The President has become an integral part of the psychic life of Americans.  Indeed, the President arouses more emotion in most people than their real parents….the First Family is the family we can all adopt”

…was probably overdrawn, and maybe it was in the society of 1965.  But in today’s world. after viewing 6 years of Obama-worship by substantial numbers of people…not to mention garden-variety celebrity-worship…it doesn’t seem so overdrawn at all.

The second NYT review, by Sidney Hyman. cites Kennedy acolyte Lawrence O’Brien to the effect that Simulmatics had nothing to do with the Kennedy campaign’s success–that it was all a matter of  “good, old-fashioned politicking”–and takes this assertion as definitive.  (Hyman suggests that if people really want to understand the 1964 campaign, all they need to do is buy a copy of the publicly-available Democratic campaign manual.)

Regardless of how much use the Kennedy campaign did or did not make of  the Simulmatics analyses during the campaign, they were certainly impressed with the possibilities of market segmentation:

Upon taking control at the Democratic convention, the Kennedys quickly discovered that apart from a Civil Rights Division on paper, the Democratic National Committee had no structure through which to make pointed appeals to special interest groups. Kennedy brother-in-law Sargent Shriver was promptly dispatched to reach out to as many of these groups as possible, and soon a range of special units emerged: the Nationalities Division, with four main sections of German, Italian, Polish, and Spanish, as well as twenty-six special committees; an additional Spanish-language operation of Viva Kennedy clubs; special interest groups like Businessmen for Kennedy, Farmers for Kennedy-Johnson, and Labor’s Committee for the Election of Kennedy and Johnson…       (source)

…rather ironic given Kennedy’s speech about seeking a future with “no bloc voting of any kind.”

NYT’s opinion aside, I think the book is actually quite well-written and worth reading.  Here’s a passage in which Bookbinder–a wealthy man and a senior Republican statesman, who has long ago abandoned his own ambitions for elective office–reflects on what he calls The Political Virus:

The virus made good men say evil things and evil men say good things and wives go hysterial and, after a victory, made impotent men walk like studs through the land.  The disease was marked by a huge intake of alcohol and a huge output of idealism.  Parochial men, who ran a mean country store, became generous with a four-billion-dollar foreign aid bill.  Savage self-made millionaires were possessed by a desire to give milk to starving children in South America.  Liberals, coming in like sheep full of pious bleatings, became hard-eyed and mean and cleverly gutted the very things they came to Washington to accomplish.  They did it for a simple and awesome reason–they wanted to remain close to power.  The marble halls, the rollcalls, the sweet eye of the television camera, the sound of applause, the call to the White House, the $100-a-plate dinner…the feel in the fingers of the parchment invitation to the Indonesian Embassy dinner.

 Bookbinder felt a moment of self-pity.  All of these luxurious and prideful things he had not wanted.  He had wanted only to study and persuade and labor and vote on the numbered bills which made his country great.  And then he knew he was lying to himself.  He wanted the power and he wanted the rest of it, too.  But with him the fever had run its course.

Definitely a book worth reading…not on Kindle, but readily available used.

A much more recent book, The Victory Lab,  was one source I used for understanding the historical truth about Simulmatics and the Kennedy campaign.  I haven’t read the whole thing yet, only the chapter relevant to this topic, but the book looks to be very worthwhile.

8 thoughts on “Catalist, “The 480,” and The Real 480”

  1. ”where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind.” Except the bloc of the dead and the non-existent in Texas and Illinois, I suppose.

  2. Salinger – wasn’t he that flack and flake for the Kennedys, skated into a job as correspondent with a big network on that basis, and later moved to France? He, like many another had sworn that he would, if Bush was elected – but he actually did, so all props for being a man of his word. A flaky man, and one so accustomed to groveling before the Kennedys as their valued courtier that I never put much confidence in anything that he said…

  3. In his paper about the work done by Simulmatics for the 1960 campaign, Ithiel de Sola Pool wrote:

    “The Presidential election of 1960 was the first in which all the technological prerequisites for our project existed: survey archives, readily available tape-using large-memory computers, and previously developed theories of voter decision.”

    Similarly, the Presidential elections of 2012 and (possibly) 2008 were the first ones in which vast realms of new data about individuals, derivable from their interaction with Internet sites, were available.

    Also see this WSJ article about the work Azarias Reda is doing in (hopefully) “Leapfrogging the Democrats’ Tech Advantage.”


  4. Maybe I’m too old or jaded but all this Google-escent stuff seems overblown. I’m a partner in a small but international engineering consultancy. Sales is important and lots of us have a heavy data analysis background. What we’ve found is important is a good mailing list which is up to date (hasn’t changed since rolodex days), a good elevator speech/stump speech, and lots and lots of calls. They are attempting to substitute local human intelligence from your state and local politicians for a national effort. I think this was deliberate on the left’s side since good local pols are often too moderate for them. This shows in the GOP having a majority of statehouses and state legislatures.

  5. DirtyJobsGuy….I do think the on-the-ground human element remains very important, and much of the current obsession with “Big Data” is overhyped…there are a lot of executives staring at spreadsheets (or beautifully visualized data representations of some kind) who would do a lot better to actually go out and spend some time on the front lines, with customers, prospects, and front-line employees.

    That said, the nature of business-to-consumer marketing is inherently more abstract and data-intensive than business-to-business marketing, because the numbers are so much greater. And politician-to-voter marketing is much more similar to business-to-consumer than it is to business-to-business.

    Speaking of mailing lists: If you are a Republican candidate, you would probably do well to target people who (a) live in an area with bad public schools, (b) have kids that go to those public schools, and (c) are deeply committed to their childrens’ education…and to send those people a strong message about the feckless attitude of the Dems toward education, and why you are different. You could identify the (a) list from zip-code-level census data. (b) would be a little harder to get, and (c) more difficult still, but probably not impossible with a little creativity. Putting all those factors together with a targeted, education-specific mailing would be valuable. Now imagine doing the same thing simultaneously for a dozen other issues and identified groups of people.

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