Power  /  Antecedent

How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future

When J.F.K. ran for President, a team of data scientists with powerful computers set out to model and manipulate American voters. Sound familiar?

In 1959, the Democratic Party, at war with itself, was being driven to the grave by segregationists. Republicans had held the White House since Eisenhower’s victory in 1952. Twice, Illinois’s governor, Adlai E. Stevenson, had failed to defeat him. In 1952, Stevenson had had a segregationist as his running mate, and in 1956 he told a mostly Black audience in Los Angeles that desegregation ought to “proceed gradually.” Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., an African-American congressman from New York, and a Democrat, damned his party for its cowardice, and endorsed Eisenhower. Even with a new running mate, Stevenson won only states that had been claimed by the Confederacy. Nevertheless, he enjoyed nearly universal support among white liberal intellectuals, including the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, the poet Archibald MacLeish, and The New Yorker’s John Hersey; all four drafted speeches for Stevenson, erudite and elegant. The Eisenhower campaign, meanwhile, ran what Stevenson supporters called a Corn Flakes Campaign: it sold its candidate like laundry detergent. “I think of a man in the voting booth who hesitates between two levers as if he were pausing between competing tubes of toothpaste in a drugstore,” one of his campaign consultants said. “I Like Ike,” the TV jingle ran. “It’s time for a change,” Eisenhower said, in meaningless ad copy written by the guy who came up with M&M’s “Melts in your mouth, not in your hand.”

Ed Greenfield, whose political-consulting firm worked on the Stevenson campaign in 1956, concluded that his speeches were too brainy. “The Emphasis upon Complexity Should Be Minimized,” the company’s social-science division recommended. But Stevenson refused either to simplify or to abandon his quisling position on civil rights. Nixon, Eisenhower’s Vice-President, was a formidable candidate, and a ferocious adversary. To beat him in 1960, Greenfield thought, Democrats needed a secret weapon.

Modern American politics began with that secret weapon. Greenfield called it Project Macroscope. He recruited the best and the brightest, many of whom had been trained in the science of psychological warfare. “The scientists are from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale, Harvard, Columbia, and Johns Hopkins,” the New York Times reported. Simulmatics’ 1960 election project was one of the largest political-science research projects ever conducted. Led by an M.I.T. political scientist named Ithiel de Sola Pool, the chairman of Simulmatics’ research board, Greenfield’s scientists compiled a set of “massive data” from election returns and public-opinion surveys going back to 1952, sorting voters into four hundred and eighty types, and issues into fifty-two clusters. Then they built what they sometimes called a voting-behavior machine, a computer simulation of the 1960 election, in which they could test scenarios on an endlessly customizable virtual population: you could ask it a question about any move a candidate might make and it would tell you how voters would respond, down to the tiniest segment of the electorate.

“Suppose that during the campaign, the question arises as to the possible consequences of making a strong civil rights speech in the deep South,” Greenfield and Pool wrote:

We will, from our model, be able to predict what such a speech would mean to each of 1,000 sub-groups of the population, and how many individuals belonging to each sub-group there are in each state. We would therefore be able to predict the approximate small fraction of a percent difference that such a speech would make in each state and consequently to pinpoint the state where it could affect the electoral vote. We might thus advise, for example, that such a speech would lose 2 to 3% of the vote in several Southern states that we would carry anyhow, but might gain ½ of a percent of the vote in some crucial Northern state.