Summer Rerun: Catalist, “The 480”, and The Real 480

There was much discussion in 2014 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.

Original post and CB discussion thread here.

18 thoughts on “Summer Rerun: Catalist, “The 480”, and The Real 480”

  1. Somebody will need to point out the obvious, and note that in 2016 the candidate with little access to such data (despite claims to the contrary) and probably little opportunity to use it, being out spent 2:1 and with 90% negative media coverage, still came out on top.

    Whatever FB/Twitter/Google data mining can provide still can’t overcome a bad candidate and a bad strategy.

  2. Here’s why I think that it is wrong to outright dismiss the Trump data team–because ever since the election, the Dems, the MSM, and Silicon Valley bigwigs have been extremely determined to shut down conservative platforms on Facebook, etc. I don’t know how effective they were, since I don’t do social media. I know they claim that they were extremely advanced, and I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt given that they won. But you have to admit that the political and media world sure isn’t acting as if the Trump team use of Facebook was no big deal.

  3. That’s a valid point but it might be happening regardless of waht they think about Trump’s or the GOP’s operation. You’re always worried about your opponent using a weapon you know well, and it is part of a pattern of general communication disruption aimed at conservatives.

  4. > Eugene Burdick’s 1964 novel, The 480

    Never heard of him or his book, but that’s essentially the same plot as Daniel F. Galouye’s “Simulacron-3”, also from 1964. Galouye’s marketing firm was running “simulations” which we would now call virtual reality. They were testing marketing and political campaigns in VR before running them in the real world.

    Michael Crichton’s movie “Looker” from 1981 had a much simpler technological prop, something that could be done with off-the-shelf software now. A marketing firm was saving advertisers money by computer-generating actors and sets for TV commercials… as a sideline, they were altering political debates in real time between the cameras and the transmitters, making some candidates look shifty or dishonest.

  5. There’s a James Stewart movie, “Magic Town”, from 1947 that is more about poling than simulation. No computers then. The premise is that a particular town is a perfect statistical model of the country. Stewart and his partner can conduct their research by wandering around and talking to the unsuspecting townspeople. It all ends when the secret comes out and the townspeople become self conscious and anxious to hold all the “correct” opinions.

    This is what many people think has gone wrong with poling for the last few cycles. The death of the private land line phone means that there is no way cheap way to contact a large proportion of the population.

    I actually read the book as a teenager much closer to its publication, not that I remember much now.

    Before “big data” makes much progress anywhere, someone will have to come up with a good bs detector. This will leave significantly smaller data.

  6. That’s the main problem with phone-based polling since answering machines became popular in the 1980s or Caller ID in the 1990s. The sample set moved from “probably most households” to “people who choose to pick up the phone and talk to a pollster” (or, even better, one of those robocall polling machines)

    I maintain that’s a small and not-too-representative demographic…

  7. The Atkinson book points out that Media Matters got millions from Soros and a few other big donors and developed a way to multiply such slips as the Don Imus, “nappy headed hos” comment. I had listened to Imus for years. That sort of banter was pretty common on his show. He was a “shock jock” type who had gotten into politics.

    When he made that crack, about a womens’ basketball team, Media Matters made it a test case of their methods. They created such a national stink that Imus’ show was cancelled by CBS.

    It was the first of those campaigns like the one against DeSantis about “Monkeys.”

    It’s Astroturf and might just have run its course.

  8. MikeK: Um, Roseanne would beg to differ that such hysterics have run their course.

    Speaking of hysterics, John McCain sure is lucky Trump won. If not, he’d be just some random dead Republican hater who was stopping Hillary’s agenda. As it is, he’s a National Hero. You’d think he was George Washington, not a career backbencher. It’s all way too much, and so transparent about what they’re doing.

  9. Can you remember ever seeing anything funnier than today’s national media featuring the glowing eulogy of John McCain given by Henry Kissinger?

  10. McCain’s last year certainly did nothing to raise my opinion of him. The protracted, elaborate mourning emphasizes to me the fact that he doesn’t leave much of a real void. Using his funeral to settle old scores doesn’t surprise me but wouldn’t be the sort of legacy I’d like to leave.

    I’m not surprised that Trump couldn’t resist a little tit for tat. He should have remembered that at the end of the day, he’s the one sleeping in the White House.

  11. “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.”

    Very telling, that turn of phrase.

    I have to admit that I have lost all of those shreds of respect that I once felt regarding John McCain, over the last couple of years and months. (And for the mainstream media, too – and for the manner in which personalities who were damning him in 2008 as the next Hitler, practically — were slobbering eulogies over his coffin. Barf.) Sarah Palin was nothing but publicly loyal and supportive towards him. She was the only reason his presidential campaign had any chance of success — and his subordinates sabotaged her, he didn’t lift a finger to defend her, publicly regretted tapping her for the VP slot, and blamed her for his loss …and then that final insult; don’t come to the funeral. How graceless and vindictive was that?

  12. I had forgotten that his aides savaged him in a book about 2008. No wonder they weren’t invited but Palin deserved better.

    I was hoping a bit that Ducey would have the guts to appoint her to the Senate seat but I learned she sold her Phoenix house in 2016.

  13. Sgt Mom…”they wanted to remain close to power.” And today, to a much greater extent than was the case when Burdick wrote, there is another motivation for staying in office: the money. And I’m not talking about the salary, but rather the “deferred compensation” in the form of future lobbying and “consulting” opportunities, contributions to one’s foundation, etc etc.

  14. the “deferred compensation” in the form of future lobbying and “consulting” opportunities, contributions to one’s foundation, etc etc.

    That’s the reason for the anger about pulling security clearances. Who the hell let them have them after they left government ?

  15. If he’d bowed out of office after his milquetoast run against Obama, I’d still be glad that I finally had the opportunity to vote for him.

    If he’d kept his damn mouth shut after Trump won, I’d feel neutral.

    As it is, my lip is curling of its own accord.

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