Michael Palmer knows if your house buys more meat than vegetables. He knows if you have an American flag on your porch and a political sign in your yard. He knows what car you own, when you last voted and if you have cats. He is, in essence, the eyes and ears for the network led by industrial billionaires Charles and David Koch. And he may be the man who decides if Republicans keep their majority in the Senate this November.
As the president of the Koch-owned i360 data giant, Palmer has hundreds, if not thousands, of pieces of information on each and every American, gleaned through documents his team picks up from courthouses, auto dealerships and frequent shopper programs. No magazine subscription is too insignificant, no online purchase too small to note. All of it adds up, with the help of the nine PhDs on his staff, to predict voter behaviors and perhaps determine the outcome of races up and down the ballot.
“If someone came around and gave me $200 million today and 100 people from Google, we could not build what we’ve built in the last seven years, in a year or two,” Palmer said as he met with reporters Sunday at a retreat of 400 donors to the network led by the Koch brothers, known officially as Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce.
Every competitive Senate race—and a few more that aren’t—is using Palmer’s data to figure out which doors to knock on and which phones to ring. Based on that data, volunteers going door to door talking with voters even have their talking points updated in real time, not just based on the house but on which person living there answers the door.
“Data isn’t the end all, be all of a campaign. I mean, if you don’t have the right candidate, the right message, if the economy is collapsing, you know, there are a lot of externalities that are going to affect an election a lot more than having a sophisticated data operation,” said Palmer, who was the chief technology officer for John McCain’s 2008 campaign. “That said, when you’re looking at the last one or two or three points, data and analytics and tech operations are incredibly important. Guess what? Most elections are won or lost in that one or two or three points.”
The Republican National Committee has access to his tomes of data, which means GOP nominee Donald Trump, too, could read up on voters. Trump has, however, discounted the value of such research and instead prefers to lean on his gut. “It doesn’t seem like he has one,” Palmer said of Trump’s data operation.
To traditional candidates, the value of this research cannot be overstated. As much as Americans believe their vote is their own, they tend to fall into patterns that social scientists can spot from afar. It’s not as simple as whether someone shops at Whole Foods or subscribes to Martha Stewart’s magazine. Buying white wine or rosé can offer clues, as can the time shoppers go to the grocery store. Add in what someone is tweeting about, and it’s possible that Palmer’s team can more accurate predict your vote than your spouse.
And, yet, the Republican-allied Koch data machine is still likely behind what Democrats have built. Obama leaned on data science in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns, and the Democratic-aligned NGP/VAN firm is one of the most sophisticated in the world when it comes to knowing every last shred of information about a person. Year over year, Democratic campaigns have fed into that system and kept it humming along with every imaginable piece of information.
“We’re probably still behind,” Palmer said of the data race between Republicans and Democrats. “Potentially some of our technology is newer or better,” but it’s not as well known as Democrats who are more familiar with the NGP/VAN platform.
These pinpoints of information have undeniable utility. Even so, several of Trump’s primary opponents leaned on i360’s data in their campaigns, yet were unable to match the real estate mogul’s brute force. It’s why Trump has publicly said he doesn’t plan on using the RNC’s data platform too much, if at all.