How Mitt Romney uses tricks of supermarkets to find donors

Texas-based analytic firm uses computers to trawl through data troves looking for shopping habits

No one ever doubted the corporate savvy of Mitt Romney and his presidential campaign but few knew until yesterday that it was employing invasive and covert data-mining techniques – developed first for the retail industry – to identify potential donors by analysing their shopping, travelling and lifestyle choices.

The help is coming from a Texas-based analytic firm that once did work for a friend tied to Bain & Co, which was founded by Mr Romney. Tom Buxton, the chief executive of the firm, Buxton Co, confirmed his involvement with the campaign to the Associated Press.

His activity will only help to swell the torrent of money in a year when campaign spending is already set to break all records, topping $2bn (£1.25bn). The revelation is another indication that the vaunted cash-raising machine built by President Barack Obama during his 2008 race against John McCain and resurrected for his re-election effort may be no match for the sophistication of parallel efforts at Team Romney.

The final stretch of this year's contest after the party conventions will see Mr Obama heavily outspent by his challenger and the outside groups supporting him.

This may be the first time data-mining has made its way into a US presidential election. It is not something everyone will cheer because of the snooping and privacy issues involved.

Companies like Buxton use high-powered computers to comb through data troves in hopes of extracting useful nuggets about people, including their shopping habits thanks to credit-card swipes and even what people post on Facebook. For the Romney campaign the usefulness is clear. Every time the Buxton computers find a person who appears to have conservative leanings – even church attendance can be monitored – and a few spare dollars, it only remains for campaign volunteers to get in touch and put forth the begging bowl. Many may never have contributed to a political campaign before.

Hitherto, data-mining, which means following spending trails most people don't even realise they are generating, has been used most commonly to assist businesses like supermarkets to identify possible customer bases or to decide, for example, which locations might be best to open new outlets.

Questions may be asked about how Mr Buxton is being paid for his firm's services. AP said it can find no record of his company receiving payments so far and there are restrictions under US election laws on corporations volunteering help to campaigns without asking for fees. He is doing the work for Mr Romney he said because he wants "to be on the winning team".

Mr Buxton confirmed that he had previously worked with Dick Boyce, a former colleague of Mr Romney at Bain helping to identify new locations for a chain of pet-supply shops, PetCo.

The data troves that are routinely bought and sold by large corporations can throw out all kinds of information, ranging from voting habits, charitable donations, property-tax records as well as survey responses.

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