A collection of current and past presidential advertising materials hang on a wall in the visitor center of the New Hampshire State House in Concord, N.H.
Joseph Prezioso /AFP via Getty Images
Joseph Prezioso /AFP via Getty Images
Decades before Google or Facebook existed, a Madison Avenue advertising man started a company called Simulmatics based on a then revolutionary method of using computers to forecast how people would behave.
Formed in 1959, Simulmatics charged clients a hefty fee to access its “people machine” — a computer program that drew on polling information and behavioral science in order to mathematically predict the impact of an advertising pitch or political message.
The New Yorker’sJill Lepore writes about Simulmatics in her new book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future. She describes company founder Ed Greenfield as a “small time operator” with an interest in liberal causes.
“He was a very devoted liberal … and got into political consulting, which is what a lot of advertising agencies had done, mostly for Republicans,” Lepore says. “But Greenfield wanted to bring political consulting to Democrats.”
Simulmatics began working for the Democratic National Committee ahead of the 1960 election. Based on data prediction models, company analysts advised John F. Kennedy, then a longshot candidate, to take a stronger position on civil rights.
“In the fall of 1960, everything that Simulmatics recommended Kennedy do Kennedy did,” Lepore says. “And so when he won, Simulmatics took credit.”
At the time, Simulmatics drew condemnation from scholars and political leaders who saw it as a threat to democracy. But now, 70 years later, the company’s data collection practices and predictive models have become commonplace among political campaigns.
“They’re collecting data about you in order to send you messages that will affect how you vote. That’s now what our politics has become,” Lepore says. “Especially [now that] we’re stuck in our houses. That’s really all that we have. We’re not talking to people on the street or even answering the door or chatting with people about what we might do. We’re just bits of data being manipulated.”
If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, by Jill Lepore
On how she came across the story of Simulmatics
In 2015, I had an assignment from The New Yorker to write a kind of an assessment of the … polling industry. And I wrote a piece called Politics and the New Machine. And it struck me at the time, really early in my research, that polling is … obsolete in that with the advent of data analytics companies, data science, modern data, modern political data science, you don’t have to call somebody up and ask them a hundred questions to know how they might vote or what they believe about [Joe] Biden’s latest speech or [President] Trump’s latest action, because … you can collect data about that. That’s how politics actually works. So I was interested in that and for the purpose of the piece and answering, like, when did that begin? If polling is being replaced by data science, when did that begin? And then that took me to Simulmatics in the 1960 election work.
On the partnership between Simulmatics founder Ed Greenfield and “Wild” Bill McPhee
[McPhee] was a very erratic genius, and he worked in the field of voting behavior, trying to use what we know about election returns and public opinion polls to come up with a mathematical model that could tell you how to predict voters’ behavior. And he came up with this thing for his PhD dissertation, and then Greenfield … said, “This is it! This is it! Ever since the election of 1952, I’ve been trying to find a way that we could use computers to influence political campaigns!” And so he brought McPhee on board and he turned his doctoral dissertation into a commercial product that would found a for-profit company.
I think what Greenfield didn’t quite get was McPhee was a little wild-eyed. During the time he was doing that research, he was manic depressive. His wife was home with young children, had him committed to Bellevue. Most of this work, he did a great deal of it, he did while in [the New York psychiatric hospital] Bellevue.
On how Simulmatics opened a debate about the future of democracy
I think the argument that wins out eventually, honestly, is the argument that’s put forward by Ithiel de Sola Pool who’s the MIT political scientist, who’s the chairman of the research board for this new company, Simulmatics. He says, you want a political candidate to have as much information as possible. This is information that our technology and scientific research is now able to provide to political campaigns. So who wants to stand in the way of knowledge? Knowledge is a good thing and progress will be when the other side also has a people machine. If we have two people machines fighting against one another, then that’s fair. And that’s actually the argument that wins.
On how Simulmatics, comprised entirely of white men, was trying to understand Black people and women
What really struck me was so much anguish around the disconnect between these men. They’re white liberal men trying to understand the mind of other people — the minds in particular of Black voters. So it’s white men trying to understand Black people. And then the consumers were mainly women. So they’re trying to figure out how women think. And meanwhile, they all treat their wives like crap. It’s this horrible kind of a very bad bargain of 1950s marriages. Some of these people had decent marriages, but the rest of them, almost all of them, ended up in divorce and quite acrimonious divorces.
There’s something that I think really prefigures the arrogance of Silicon Valley, where these guys, the sort of [Mark] Zuckerberg kind of guy who stands above us all and tries to figure out how women and people of color think and how they can be influenced. The irony of Simulmatics trying to figure out what message the Kennedy campaign should send about civil rights in 1960, when Black men are sitting in at lunch counters all across the South, Black men and women are demonstrating on the streets. Like, do we need to write a computer program to predict what the effect would be of taking a stronger position on civil rights for Black voters? It’s kind of nuts, but it’s also very much the world that we now live in. …
It’s really clear that this company — which is founded on a commitment to the idea that people who aren’t white men are mysterious and need to be decoded by computers — kind of really can’t endure the absurdity of that idea. It kind of collapses in on itself.
On Simulmatics doing public opinion research on Vietnamese peasants for the Dept. of Defense during the Vietnam War
They also did a lot of measurement of popular opinion among Vietnamese peasants. And so they would drive out with a military escort or be flown in to a village with teams of Vietnamese translators, most of these were college students, and ask questions. They would administer … a really long questionnaire … 100 questions about, like, if you had a television, what would you watch? They’re trying to construct, essentially, a mathematical model of the Vietnamese peasant mind in order to figure out what are the right messages to be sending to these people to ensure their loyalty. It’s cockamamie. But it is an extension of the logic of the voting research: You gather enough public opinion information, enough demographic information, and then devise a model and then you make a prediction. …
The questions were largely bafflingly irrelevant to these people’s lives and the kind of daily suffering that they’re enduring during this war. The whole thing is just kind of a travesty. And what surprised me a bit was how clearly the defense department understood that it was a travesty and yet continued to fund it. There’s just file after file after file in the National Archives of people at the Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the Department of Defense that oversaw the Simulmatics project, saying, “This stuff is nuts. These people are doing meaningless research and we’re paying them again and again and again for it.”
On why Simulmatics disappears after the ’60s
I think it completely vanished. I had certainly not heard of it. There’s not really a scholarship about it. One of the reasons that it vanished is Ed Greenfield’s own dissolution. Most of the records of the company were in New York, where the headquarters were, and the company filed for bankruptcy and … pretty much think all the archives were destroyed. … There are no corporation records. … A lot of what I had to do to work on this project was piece together the archives from different institutional collections.
On how the Simulmatics story connects to our current election
What Simulmatics started doing was really trying to convince the Democratic Party to count Black voters. Black voters matter, really, was Ed Greenfield’s message. We’re going to show you that mathematically. We’re going to build a computer. We’re going to build a machine that can show you that Black voters matter, because we need to be stronger on civil rights. It starts with this really noble commitment to civil rights.
But what it produces is the world that we have today where we’re all so segmented and micro-messaged to that we have no sense of the common good any longer. Which is how a democracy has to work. Like, we actually are not supposed to be going into a voting booth or sealing a ballot and sticking in an envelope and voting the way our demographic micro-segment says we must, because we’re actually supposed to be looking at that ballot and thinking about what’s good for everyone. That notion of the public good and the public interest, which is the ground on which a democracy stands, is falling away from beneath our feet.
Roberta Shorrock and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.
It’s almost impossible to overstate the transformative effect on American politics ignited by the death of this one woman, at this one moment.
The far-ranging potential consequences from the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court justice and liberal legal icon, will start immediately, beginning in the election campaign that determines whether Donald Trump gets a second presidential term.
And they could last for decades in the staggering array of issues to be litigated before the court — some of whose consequences reach far beyond America’s borders and could have global repercussions.
Here are five changes prompted by her death.
It pours fuel on an overheating election
It’s been distressingly common to hear this election described as a do-or-die moment for American democracy.
It was the theme of Barack Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention. Meanwhile, figures inside the Trump administration, and close to the president, and on talk radio, have evoked scenarios of post-election violence.
There are books, essays and newspaper articles in which political scientists sound alarm bells about the durability of the American republic.
Which is to say this election was already heated enough, with a president insisting he’s being cheated, legal fights over mail-in voting, deaths at protests and armed demonstrations.
The stakes have now risen.
“I’m genuinely worried,” Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian Joseph Ellis said in an interview Saturday.
“The fate of the republic [has not been] genuinely at stake [since the Civil War].… I think we’re in a moment analogous to that now.”
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted that America will face its most difficult months in a generation, and asked for prayers for the country.
It means conservative court dominance, potentially for decades
The court recently had a 5-4 conservative tilt. It’s now 5-3, and will be 6-3 if Trump gets his nominee confirmed.
The Supreme Court has gained power throughout American history, starting in the 19th century, in its interpretive role over U.S. law.
Now, as bitter partisanship makes it harder to pass bills in Congress than a few decades ago, parties frequently rely on courts to resolve political disputes.
One big case before the new, Ginsburg-less court involves a challenge to the law known as Obamacare — hearings are scheduled for Nov. 10 on the Affordable [Health] Care Act.
Obama’s signature law, which extended health coverage to millions, appears in grave danger: the law survived one earlier challenge by a single vote.
This court could even decide the presidential election.
In 2000, the high court ended a Florida recount and made George W. Bush president; the numerous fights this year over mail-in ballots could be far, far messier.
Longer-term battles are inevitable over abortion, and over myriad presidential executive actions. Take climate-change regulations and immigration rules.
Obama signed a flurry of such climate and immigration executive orders; future ones would inevitably be challenged in a more hostile court.
“It would be the strongest conservative majority we’ve seen,” former U.S. federal prosecutor Joseph Moreno told CBC News.
“[Now you have chief justice] John Roberts potentially sometimes voting with the minority. [But with a change now] you’d have a potentially secure block of conservative votes.
“That would impact so many things in this country.”
Other big changes could be economic. In his book, Supreme Inequality, author Adam Cohen argues that the U.S. Supreme Court has, for most of American history, favoured the wealthy and powerful, with a rare exception being the 1960s court led by Earl Warren.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a champion for women’s rights, has died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 87. 3:00
He said the court has recently been a major driver of American inequality — stripping away union powers, allowing corporate money into politics and undermining the integration and funding of schools in minority areas.
Page 1 of his book carries an anecdote about Bader Ginsburg: she wrote the dissent for the losing side in a case involving a Black man subjected to racist abuse at work.
It upends the election focus
The court fight threatens to overshadow the presidential election issue Democrats hoped to focus on: the pandemic, which has killed around 200,000 Americans.
It will play out, day after day, as voters cast ballots. Voting has already started. Ballots are being mailed out, and in-person polling stations are open in some states.
The Supreme Court has been a winning issue for Trump before. In 2016, more than a quarter of Trump voters told pollsters it was the reason they voted for him.
.<a href=”https://twitter.com/GOP?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@GOP</a> We were put in this position of power and importance to make decisions for the people who so proudly elected us, the most important of which has long been considered to be the selection of United States Supreme Court Justices. We have this obligation, without delay!
Trump cemented his alliance with social conservatives by vowing to name only conservatives to the court, and he took the unusual step of releasing a list of candidates in advance.
He’s done it again: Trump released his new list of picks just over a week ago. He’s promised to announce his choice, likely a woman, within days.
Intriguingly, when asked Saturday about one candidate, Barbara Lagoa, Trump praised her and mentioned, unprompted, that she was “Hispanic” and “from Florida” — a critical voting group in a critical swing state.
There’s no guarantee this issue will help him. The intense upcoming debate on abortion is no slam-dunk for conservatives.
Some polling suggests a strong majority of Americans want to preserve, at least in part, the landmark abortion-rights decision Roe v. Wade.
It’s one of the first points mentioned in a fundraising letter to supporters from Democratic VP candidate Kamala Harris.
“Today, we fight for [Bader Ginsburg’s] legacy,” said Harris’ note.
Democratic donors certainly appeared energized: the party said it raised tens of millions of dollars in the hours after Bader Ginsburg’s death.
In an inimitably American political phenomenon, both parties were actively fundraising upon the judge’s death.
The Trump campaign released a similar message to supporters.
This sudden effect of this debate will likely resonate unevenly across the country, helping Republicans in some places but not others.
It’s illustrated in the different reactions from Republican senators involved in tough re-election fights.
Just compare their reactions to a map showing church attendance rates per state: Republicans running in more religious states dove headfirst into the fight, which will inevitably raise hot-button social issues.
North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, Kelly Loeffler of Georgia, and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, who heads the justice committee in charge of the process, vowed to support a nomination immediately.
By contrast, Colorado’s Cory Gardner dodged various questions on the topic and released a vague statement; Susan Collins of Maine said the presidential election winner should get to make the pick.
There’s some reason for optimism for Democratic nominee Joe Biden: surveys in three smaller swing states this week suggested he’s more trusted on court appointments than Trump.
It triggers a brawl on Capitol Hill
The power to pick judges rests with the president. The power to confirm them belongs to the Senate.
Right now Republicans control the Senate with 53 votes, to 47 Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents.
Those numbers would not, until recently, have guaranteed confirmation: for generations, 60 votes were required for most major actions in the Senate, but because Congress is so frequently paralyzed, first Democrats, then Republicans, began chipping away at the so-called filibuster rule.
Now it takes a simple majority, of 50 or 51, to confirm a judge. And it will be close.
The first question is how quickly Republicans proceed. Trump tweeted his own suggestion that the party move fast: “We have this obligation, without delay!”
His party has flexibility on timing a final vote. It can happen before or after the Nov. 3 election: the current Senate term lasts two months beyond the election, until Jan. 3, and the current presidential term lasts until Jan. 20.
It’s taken an average of just over two months to confirm justices since the 1970s. It used to be faster, in less-partisan eras, and it could be faster again with the new simple-majority rule.
Democrats are vowing to put up whatever fight they can — with legislative delay tactics, threats of revenge if they regain the chamber and efforts to embarrass Republican senators in tough re-election races.
Then there are the insults.
Both parties are calling each other hypocrites: Republicans for reversing themselves on their 2016 declaration that presidents shouldn’t name a judge close to an election, and Democrats for reversing themselves in the other direction.
Yet Republicans likely hold the upper hand in this nomination battle. They controlled the Senate in 2016 and they control it now.
It foreshadows a clash over institutions
The Republican Party has won the popular vote in a presidential election precisely once since 1988. Yet it has a stranglehold over the Supreme Court.
And Democrats are livid.
There are growing calls within the party to overhaul the country’s institutions to make them more representative of the country’s actual, increasingly diverse, demographics.
Obama spelled out some of this agenda in his eulogy for the late civil-rights hero John Lewis: he called for full votes in Congress for Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico, a new voting-rights law and an end to the Senate’s 60-vote filibuster rule.
Many progressives want to go even further — and expand the Supreme Court: meaning add new judges.
Biden has opposed the idea and said Democrats would come to regret it.
The Democrat who leads the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Saturday said that if Republicans proceed with this nomination, Democrats should immediately move to expand the court should they win the Senate.
Franklin Roosevelt famously failed in an effort to pack the court in the 1930s.
If Sen. McConnell and <a href=”https://twitter.com/SenateGOP?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@SenateGOP</a> were to force through a nominee during the lame duck session—before a new Senate and President can take office—then the incoming Senate should immediately move to expand the Supreme Court. 1/2 <a href=”https://t.co/BDYQ0KVmJe”>https://t.co/BDYQ0KVmJe</a>
To win political power will mean using it brazenly, extravagantly, and without comity or consensus.
The death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is devastating, and not simply because it is the passing of one of the most influential jurists in American history.
It is what comes next that should alarm us the most.
If we lived in a normal democracy in which all political parties abided by basic democratic norms and traditions, both presidential candidates would spend the next six weeks debating— among other issues — who they would appoint to the Supreme Court in 2021 should they win the presidential election.
But if we lived in that country, Merrick Garland would be a member of the highest court in the land.
Instead, four years ago Republicans — led by Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell — refused to give Garland a Senate hearing. As they argued at the time, nine months before a presidential election was too soon to appoint a Supreme Court replacement for Antonin Scalia. Fast forward to 2020 and McConnell announced within hours of Ginsburg’s death that there will be a Senate voteon Trump’s pick to replace her on the Court, even though voters in some states have already begun to cast ballots.
McConnell’s move is cynical, hypocritical, and completely in keeping with the nihilism that he has brought to bear on American politics. For McConnell, norms are for the weak. Might makes right and political power is a tool to be wielded in the pursuit of ones self-interested political goals, the consequences on the legitimacy of America’s democratic institutions be damned. We saw this when Republicans pushed through Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Court after credible allegations of sexual assault, and we will likely see it play out now. While it’s far from guaranteed that McConnell will persuade 49 of his other Senate Republicans to go along with his efforts to pack the Court, one would be foolishto bet against cynicism winning the day.
If this happens, what will Democrats do in response? Should the polls hold up and they win the presidency and narrowly take control of the Senate, American politics will dramatically change. As Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer made clear Saturday morning, if McConnell moves forward, “…nothing is off the table.”
That means, almost certainly, an end to the Senate filibuster if Democrats win control in November. Democrats would probably move forward with statehood for the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, which could mean four new Democratic senators. And Democrats may be emboldened to expand the Supreme Court to make up for what the party rightly perceives as the theft of two seats by McConnell and the GOP.
Democrats would have already pushed for many of these reforms before Ginsburg died. But if the GOP rams through yet another new justice, the gloves will come off — not because Senate Democrats will be furious, but because it will be the only way to hold back the bile of party activists.
This is the right thing for Democrats to do. When one party refuses to abide by democratic norms; when it acts as an agent of only its own political supporters and makes no effort to honor institutional principles; and when there is no accountability and there are no political repercussions for nefarious actions, the course forward is clear. Democrats must play the same political hardball Republicans have played for much of the past two decades.
But we should not delude ourselves about the larger corrosive effect. For Democrats to imitate the actions of Republicans means a new era of cutthroat politics in which bipartisanship remains out the window and both political parties shove aside all of America’s political traditions. To win political power will mean using it brazenly, extravagantly, and without comity or consensus. It will complete the evolution of American government from its current state to one more representative of a parliamentary democracy in which once a party achieves power, it treats it as a mandate to put in place its political agenda lock, stock, and barrel. And when the other party achieves power, it will do the same. It’s not to say cooperation will be impossible or never happen, but rather that the system will evolve in such a way that it will not be necessary — and each party will put in place reforms to increase their power and weaken the other side. Republicans have been doing that for years. Now Democrats will likely follow their lead.
Perhaps this is the politics we need. Perhaps Americans need a starker reminder of the differences between the two parties. But the ugliness and divisiveness that will flow from this will only deepen the intense polarization that already defines American politics.
In an ideal world, Mitch McConnell would step back from the brink or enough members of the Senate Republican caucus would demand he do so. Don’t hold your breath on that happening. After all, if the last few years have taught us anything — we don’t live in that America.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.
In this emergency installment of the FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast, the crew discusses Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing and how the political fight around the new vacancy on the court might unfold.
The FiveThirtyEight Politics podcast is recorded Mondays and Thursdays. Help new listeners discover the show by leaving us a rating and review on iTunes. Have a comment, question or suggestion for “good polling vs. bad polling”? Get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments.
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