The company amassed up to 5000 data points on every American adult and conducted hundreds of thousands of personality surveys, combining them to pinpoint millions of possible Trump voters. Their analysis of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – the rust-belt states that unexpectedly fell to the Republican candidate – proved prescient, while most traditional pollsters ended up on the wrong side of history.
Cambridge Analytica chief executive officer Alexander Nix said big data was being used to do things considered impossible only five years ago. A better understanding of target audiences not only shapes political messaging but helps determine the allocation of campaign resources, which battleground electorates to visit and where to buy advertising .
“The sheer volume of data is allowing us to look at audiences in ever increasing granularity, to start to understand exactly what messages individuals need to receive,” he told Fairfax Media.
The company’s point of difference from existing micro-targeting outfits, Mr Nix said, is the scale of its data “particularly in countries like the United States where the data legislation is more permissive, which allows us a truly holistic understanding of that audience” and the ability to “synthesise” it with the psychographic information.
Doing the work is a large team of PhD-wielding scientists, including cosmologists and physicists. “Data science is not a panacea,” Mr Nix said, contending that it is a powerful tool allowing a political campaign to boost a “really good candidate with clear, sound policies that are well articulated, that resonate with the electorate”.
Cambridge Analytica is a recently established offshoot of the SCL Group, a behavioural communications company that has operated in over 100 countries since the 1990s. As well as political and commercial campaigns, the company has worked extensively with governments on “psychological warfare” and the use of soft power in armed conflict.
Now, Mr Nix said the time might be right look at the Australian market.
An impending trip “will be an opportunity to understand a little bit more about the landscape there”, he said, when asked about Australian interest in the company’s work. “The timing is propitious. I think now might be a good time, given our recent work in countries like the United States, to maybe have a dialogue.”
Australia’s compulsory voting system means the company would focus on undecided and swinging voters rather than impacting turnout as it did in the US.
While the firm is strongly associated with the Republican side of politics in the US and the ‘Leave’ campaign in Britain, it has backed campaigns across the political spectrum. Steve Bannon, the former executive chairman of right-wing website Breitbart News who now serves as White House chief strategist, was reportedly on the company’s board.