Your Next Impulse Buy: The Presidency

How political contributions are like impulse purchases, and other insights from David Mason of Aristotle, the political intelligence company.

David Mason, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, is now Senior Vice President for Compliance Services at Aristotle International, a political technology company. Aristotle uses its technological wizardry to help political campaigns identify supporters and get out the vote; it recently announced a partnership with Intermarkets to provide microtargeting for political advertisements online, as well as a service to help campaigns glean more information from text message donations.

FAST COMPANY: Let’s talk about the recent FEC rulings on political donations via text message, which is your area of expertise.

DAVID MASON: The FEC issued a ruling approving a plan that would allow contributors to make contributions via text message and make payments on their mobile device bills. The trick was the FEC administering a statute written in the 1970s and not substantially updated since then. It does not contemplate newer technologies. It had proven a very difficult mix for the commission and for cell phone operators to work out.

In what other instances are election law and technology out of sync?

With small ads on the internet, there’s often not enough room for the full disclaimer required by the Federal Election Campaign Act. The disclaimer can be very lengthy, saying who paid for the ad and including a non-authorization statement. When dealing with a 140-character limit, you can be out of characters before you’re done with the disclaimer. With text messages, the FEC applied an exemption to this disclaimer rule, saying there was just not enough space.

Are text message donations that useful to campaigns?

"A surprising predictor is car ownership—there are certain makes of car that correlate fairly highly to Republican or Democratic voting."

Text message contributions are limited to small amounts, $10 or so, and the processing and collection costs run about 50% of that. That’s not going very far. The big payoff for campaigns on small donations is: one, being able to go back to that donor, and second, to be able to engage the donor for other purposes—make sure they get out to vote, for instance. But with text messages campaigns are not getting any information about the donor, other than the number associated with the device used to send the text. Aristotle has a reverse mobile matching database service, which people can use to get the name and other contact information of the mobile donor.

Aren’t there privacy issues involved here?

Not really. For some of the significant privacy legislation, there’s an exemption for political entities. The limitations that might be there in a commercial context are not there in a campaign context.

Why would political entities be exempt from privacy restrictions that apply to corporations?

Who wrote the laws?

Fair enough. How has your own experience as former chairman of the FEC influenced your work at Aristotle?

Any time we’ve got a new product or service, I can pretty quickly scope out whether there are any compliance issues we need to worry about. The other piece is, having seen a lot of efforts to apply some imagination to new efforts, I have a sense of what’s possible and not possible. For instance, there have been a number of attempts over the year of making donor-driven sites—so that instead of having the donors be hit up, it would allow donors to go out and identify candidates they would likely support.

Because people often wake up and think, "I want to give money to a politician today."

It’s just not the way it works. Donors have never been interested in that. It’s always the campaigns who are the suitors. Political contributions are a classic impulse decision. Who someone supports isn’t an impulse, but the actual decision to make a donation is typically an impulse decision made at the point of request.

When I last wrote about Aristotle, I mentioned how bits of data you collect can predict party affiliation. Football fans are more likely to vote Republican, for instance. What are some other odd predictors you’ve found?

A surprising predictor is car ownership—there are certain makes of car that correlate fairly highly to Republican or Democratic voting. Magazine subscriptions are a big one. Income is a pretty obvious one.

How so?

The higher income people tend to vote Republican, until they get very high, and then it curves back around the other way.

Why’s that?

I guess Warren Buffet just isn’t as worried about paying his tax bill as someone making "only" $250,000 a year.

What's the point at which people reach escape velocity from concerns over taxes?

In ’08 Obama carried a majority of voters with income of $200,000 and above, but lost those between $75,000 and $200,000. For net worth the point at which voters seem to trend back liberal is at least $10 million, possibly as high as $30 million. My sense is that net worth has more to do with this than income, though the two are obviously correlated. There is also some initial polling evidence that Romney is doing a lot better than McCain did among very high earners.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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[Image: Flickr user Tom Lohdan]

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