Micro-Targeting Voters with Big Data

John Aristotle Phillips joins us to discuss how important it is to have detailed voter data in order to run a successful political campaign. 

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Micro-Targeting Voters with Big Data

We’ve all heard the talking heads on cable news declare that this or that election was the year of the “suburban soccer mom voter” or the year for voters who prefer Heineken beer and so on and so forth. Have you ever wondered who decides that these small voter niches have outsized importance in any given election?

If so, then you’re in luck! This week, Building Tomorrow interviews John Aristotle Phillips, the founder of the eponymous political campaign consultancy Aristotle. He leverages big data to micro-target voters for politicians from both sides of the aisle. Phillips has also run campaigns overseas, including in Kenya where he was deported for his efforts to unseat the party in power.

Why do you need access to all data when you are running for office? What is public record when it comes to campaigning and voting? How much does a campaign rely on data collection? What does Aristotle do? How does Aristotle help candidates who are not members of the mainstream political parties? Should Americans export political campaign consultants to intervene in the politics of other countries?

Further Reading:

The A-bomb Kid Runs For Congress, written by Maryanne Vollers

American Consultant Seeking to Detect Polling Fraud for Kenya Opposition Was Deported Ahead of Elections, written by Matina Stevis and Joe Parkinson

Aristotle Website

Related Content:

Libertarian Perspectives on Voting, written by David S. D’Amato

Should Libertarians Vote?, Free Thoughts Podcast

Nothing is Secure, Free Thoughts Podcast

00:05 Paul Matzko: Welcome to Building Tomorrow, a show about the ways tech, innovation and entrepreneurship are making the world healthier, more peaceful and more prosperous. I’m your host, Paul Matzko, and I am joined by show stalwart, Aaron Ross Powell. We have a special guest in the studio today, John Aristotle Phillips. He’s been called many things during his career, from the A-bomb Kid to a wolf of K Street. I thought that was a particularly clever epithet. But he is one of the founders of the political prediction market, Predictit, and the CEO of Aristotle, which is a big data campaign consultancy. John, thanks for coming.

00:41 John Aristotle Phillips: Thanks for having me.

00:42 Paul Matzko: Now, we have a lot of ground to cover and I do wanna get to the A-Bomb Kid. That’s the tease at the outset. John designed an atomic bomb, at an age when the rest of us were doing nothing but playing Fortnite or World of Warcraft. But let’s start with Aristotle. Most of our listeners come from outside the DC Beltway, so they’re not gonna be quite as familiar with what campaign consultancies, big data firms, do. So what is Aristotle? What does it do for political campaigns that are its customers?

01:11 John Aristotle Phillips: Sure. Well, again, thanks for having me on the show. So, Aristotle is a 35-year-old company, that my younger brother and I started when we graduated from college. And it was created, and continues to this day, to be the largest provider of political technology, and I’ll explain what that is, on a non-partisan basis in the United States. So if you’re running for President or dog catcher, if you are trying to get an initiative on the ballot, and you’re not getting any love from the political parties, you come to Aristotle. And Aristotle provides you with the top-of-the-line software, the voter data, petition management tools, get out the vote tools, online targeting, fundraising online. Anything you need to run a modern campaign, we provide. And often we will have three or four candidates seeking the same seat or office using our products.

02:23 Aaron Ross Powell: How much has… You said you started 35 years ago?

02:26 John Aristotle Phillips: Yeah.

02:26 Aaron Ross Powell: So the technology has changed a bit in that time so…

02:31 John Aristotle Phillips: Well, there was no technology. [laughter] There literally was no technology. There were no personal computers, okay?

02:40 Aaron Ross Powell: So what’s the difference, then, between what you’re doing now and what you were doing 35 years ago?

02:48 John Aristotle Phillips: Oh, boy. I’ll tell you what’s the same. We’ll do that first. What’s the same, is we like to think of ourselves as helping voters, at the end of the day, voters hear points of view or hear from potential elected officials’ points of view they wouldn’t otherwise hear, if it were just up to the Democratic or the Republican Party. We see the parties as… I have many friends that work at the DNC and the RNC. I, myself, ran as a candidate, right before we started Aristotle, as a candidate for US Congress. I won the Democratic primary and lost the general election. So we are an alternative to the two-party structure and there are a vast number of campaigns that are not partisan in the United States. And so we help citizens take matters into their own hands, if they want to run a campaign independent of the parties. We also provide technology to a lot of the party elected officials. Look, if you’re running a primary challenge, against an incumbent, you are guaranteed of walking into a buzz saw, courtesy of the incumbent protection rackets that some of the party officials are. So this is what we do. We help you run a modern political campaign and we work… We do a lot of campaigns outside the United States as well, and I’d be happy to talk about those as well. I just got back from… I did the election in Kenya for the opposition and had interesting things happen there.

04:34 Paul Matzko: Yeah, we definitely wanna talk about Kenya, in a second. But right before we get to Kenya and some of the international elections, to your point about the bipartisan nature of Aristotle, I think I saw that, in 1992, you were helping the data side of things for simultaneously, the Clinton campaign, the Bush campaign, and Ross Perot’s campaign, all at the same time.

05:00 John Aristotle Phillips: Right. We were doing more than just data for Ross Perot, but yes, that’s correct.

05:02 Paul Matzko: So Ross Perot was actually… It wasn’t just the raw data, you also were…

05:06 John Aristotle Phillips: That’s right, we were advising on the campaign.

05:08 Paul Matzko: Okay, now when you went… When you…

05:10 John Aristotle Phillips: I have great stories from the Perot campaign if you guys recognized that. [laughter]

05:12 Aaron Ross Powell: I can imagine.

05:15 John Aristotle Phillips: Yeah, some would say they make the Trump campaign look normal [laughter], and I have enormous respect for Mr. Perot, so.

05:25 Paul Matzko: As you got involved with Aristotle in ‘83, I think I read that it was. Was this desire to disrupt the two-party system part of the DNA of the organization from the get-go? Did you go into it thinking of breaking that monopoly?

05:42 John Aristotle Phillips: It wasn’t so much breaking the monopoly, but when I ran, I mentioned I won the Democratic primary and the party, the party in Connecticut put up a… Fortunately for me, a really bad candidate, but they wanted to make sure that that really bad candidate got the nomination because [chuckle] my theory was they wanted to elect the Republican. So the fact of the matter was, we couldn’t… It was as simple as this, we could not get the registered voter list for the congressional district in which I was a declared registered candidate contesting the Democratic nomination, and this is Fairfield County, Connecticut. This is not some place where it’s hard, the voter list should be hard to come by. We couldn’t get it, and so we had to fight to just to get the basic, the seed corn of a political campaign.

06:34 Paul Matzko: You were being sabotaged by your own party apparatus.

06:36 John Aristotle Phillips: We were… Yeah, it was part of the process. And ironically, candidates will tell you, irrespective of their party affiliation, there’s nothing better than winning a primary if you wanna test your team and your message and the rest of it. But often, that just… A lot of people don’t win their primaries. I was, we got into this discussion here because we talked about… We were talking about… The parties are loath to provide assistance to primary challengers to their own incumbents, they’re in the incumbent protection business. And so when you have, whether it can be Bernie Sanders or it can be somebody running for state legislature, if you’re challenging somebody who’s a Democratic incumbent, it’s expected that the party is gonna try to make it very, very difficult for you.

07:28 John Aristotle Phillips: And you have to think about it, do you really wanna be using the software and the lists? And the other information that the party can turn off a week before the election? You don’t. And you also don’t wanna be… You know, data is extremely important. Your names, the people that have said they’re gonna support you, the people who, as a result of your door-to-door efforts have entrusted you as a candidate or as a volunteer for a candidate that they’re supporting. Grandma has given her personal cell phone number to your campaign, they’re not doing this with the intention that it’s gonna get hoovered up by some institution in Washington, inside the Beltway and then sold to Publishers Clearing House or provided to an advocacy group, which grandma doesn’t even agree with. So that’s… So having control of your own data is very important.

08:24 Aaron Ross Powell: So if I’m, say I’m a candidate, I’m gonna primary my Congressperson and so I decide to come to you. What kind of data can you give me? Where are you, or Aristotle, getting that data, and then how is the data you provide me in the way that you get it different from the hoovering up lots of data about people and selling it? Because you got it from somewhere.

08:54 John Aristotle Phillips: Right, right, so the analogy, the example I was using is where somebody provides non-public data to a campaign and trusts that data to somebody who’s gone door-to-door for the campaign, and the presumption there, to use grandma’s example, is that that information, that non-public information, is being entrusted to this entity and not to a national political party or an advocacy group to which the national political party is selling or giving or providing that data. There’s a difference between that non-public data, and the registered voter list, that list that my campaign was unable to get when I ran for US Congress. It is essential. I’ll jump ahead to where this line of question may be going. It is essential in my opinion, that if you are contesting an election or have a legitimate use for the registered voter list that under the equal protection clause you must be able to get the same data as the Democratic or the Republican nominee for the party.

10:00 John Aristotle Phillips: My company, one of the things I’m proud of, is that we have, where necessary, challenged refusals to provide data to Aristotle, this is again the basic registered voter list, to provide that information to Aristotle for us in turn to provide it to those who are authorized candidates. So going back to 2000, the McCain campaign was being denied and the presidential campaign was being denied access to the registered voter data in a nearby state. They came to us, we had to challenge the denial, and we prevailed and we prevailed because the Secretary of State went to the Elections Commission. The Attorney General went to the Elections Commission and said, “Are you crazy? You can’t pick and choose who’s gonna get access to the registered voter list, it’s available to anybody.” Sure you gotta be a declared candidate, you cannot use it for commercial purposes, yada yada yada.

10:54 John Aristotle Phillips: All that being said, access to… And it’s not just the data anymore, it’s also the tools, the software, the online fundraising, the ability to take credit cards, all those things. A modern campaign requires those sorts of things. And if you’re denied access to Facebook because you’ve got a point of view, that’s out of sync with the mainstream or because you’re a libertarian or for whatever reason, I think that’s a real problem for the democratic process and you need to have access to those tools to communicate.

11:32 Paul Matzko: So a lot of this data is coming from public databases that are ostensibly supposed to be available to those who request them, like a voter registration list and the like. I spent a little time tooling around on the Aristotle website, and it looked like there’s information about potential voters that goes beyond than anything that would be on the list.

11:55 John Aristotle Phillips: There is.

11:56 Paul Matzko: So where does that data come from?

11:57 John Aristotle Phillips: Sure, we collect the… It starts as the base file, as a registered voter list, and on top of the registered voter list if there are listed telephone numbers or if there are people on a do-not-call registry, we match that data. If there are other types of information that have… So for instance, there are public record databases that we purchase access to, and the public record databases will include things like if they are, well, an example would be if they’re a donor to a political cause or to an advocacy group, or they have… They’re veterans, for instance, we do append that information on the registered voter list.

12:36 Paul Matzko: Which I guess, when you donate to a political campaign, there’s an expectation that information is not public information in those states.

12:44 John Aristotle Phillips: Well, it’s a legal requirement that it be made public information. So you have to… If you’re a campaign, part of what our software does is it discloses who gave money to you as a candidate and complies with the laws regarding that. Now, there’s certain limits on how you can use the information and there are limits in terms of the threshold amount but, by and large, if you make a contribution to a political candidate or a cause or sometimes to certain types of non-profits, those lists are available and people should not be under the assumption that they’re not.

13:24 Paul Matzko: So I think I’m trying to suss out the distinction between… Aaron proposed kind of a scenario where, or actually you proposed the scenario where if there are unsavory organizations hoovering up data that grandma wouldn’t want her phone number to be used for a Publisher’s Clearing House list. She would find that an annoying breach of her privacy, versus what is publicly accessible, what people are essentially voluntarily disclosing, trying to maintain that distinction. Is that something… How does Aristotle avoid dipping a toe into the…

13:57 John Aristotle Phillips: Sure, yeah, it’s a great question. And the line is moving in terms of what people… What the assumption is with respect to use of personal information. I use the Facebook example, I may not wanna be in their shoes, in terms of trying to figure out where that line is that you’re gonna cross at some point, if you’re licensing to a certain… For certain applications. What might have been acceptable or not really considered five years ago, that’s changed since then, and it’s gonna continue to change. If you look at GDPR in the EU, for instance, which is a privacy legislation that any company, it’s not just restricted to companies in the EU, it’s companies all over the world that may have information on EU citizens, you have to comply with it. We’ve touched on two different areas, but they’re connected, as you point out.

14:50 John Aristotle Phillips: One has to do with legally mandated and accessible information like a registered voter list or I would go further, I would say it also includes contribution lists, it’s not optional to report whether or not somebody gave you a contribution of $200, aggregate year-to-date, if you’re a federal candidate. It’s not an option, you have to report that. And there are reasons to do with campaign transparency, etcetera, etcetera. Certain signatory… If you sign a petition in certain jurisdictions, that petition has gotta be public and if the petition is public, then in most jurisdictions, it is subject to disclosure and to use for various purposes. So that’s one type of information. Another type of information is personal information that you may entrust. I may give you my personal cell phone number on the back of a card and slip it to you after this interview today. I don’t expect you to go out and sell that to somebody else. You used the word…

15:50 Paul Matzko: Dox you on Twitter or something, yeah.

15:51 John Aristotle Phillips: Well, you used the word unsavory. I don’t think I said unsavory organizations, I said… There’s a whole eco-system within 30 miles of where we sit today which is built upon the attempts to get power, and then to retain power, and that’s what politics is, it’s how we decide to adjudicate a lot of that stuff. My sense is that the balance has shifted. The parties for some time… Parties are always trying to figure out if they’re still relevant, they were trying to figure out if they were still relevant 35 years ago when we started Aristotle. Our intention at the time was to make it easier for people to make the very best case they can, no matter how weird or bizarre or mainstream their point of view is, and we include, a lot of incumbent politicians use our products and we’re delighted to have them as customers. But the fact of the matter is, if you do not wanna rely on a political party, either your local party or the national committee, or anybody, f you wanna be able to be your own person, stand up when you wanna stand up and sit down when you wanna sit down, take your own points of view on issues which are almost catechism here in terms of “You can’t do that, you’re a Democrat, you can’t support that, or you’re a Republican, don’t you dare touch that issue or criticize this politician.”

17:21 John Aristotle Phillips: If you don’t wanna live your political career taking orders from other people, then you need to control it, and controlling it means, controlling your message means controlling your campaign and controlling your campaign means you gotta control your data. You have to be able to access it without somebody looking over your shoulder and you be able to use it or withhold it. If you’re a candidate and you wanna cut a deal with a trade association or an advocacy group with whom you feel it’s either a matter of principle, that you align yourself with them or you feel that it’s politically expedient, I don’t really care about that, that’s fine. Then you share your data with others, but if you wanna keep it to yourself and you don’t want your own data sometimes being used to undermine your own campaign, then you should look at a company like Aristotle.

18:16 Paul Matzko: Has being in this industry changed how you personally give out information online? Are you more conscious of your own online privacy because of what you do? Not that Aristotle itself is hoovering up that information, but has it made you more conscious as an individual consumer?

18:36 John Aristotle Phillips: You know, as an individual consumer. Yeah, I think it has. I think it has, but I think, again, how you choose to present yourself, your online self, is up to you. I have a daughter who’s now in medical school, and I used to cringe when I would see all the stuff she would do online, because she’s a teenager and she had lots of friends. It’s stuff that we wouldn’t even dream about. I said earlier that technology wasn’t even used in campaigns when we started Aristotle. The first software program for a political campaign ever was written by my younger brother, my partner to this day, and it was written on an Apple 2 computer, right? And we scrounged and saved and got an Apple 2 computer, which was not technically the first personal computer, ever, but it was certainly… This was one of the first of that batch. [chuckle]

19:43 John Aristotle Phillips: That was the first time… Up until that point you kept the names of your supporters in a shoe box, and this was the idea was, “Hey, this new fangled thing called the computer, can it be used to organize your lists and then you can print mailing labels or door walking sheets.” So, anyway, point being, none of that occurred before when we started the company, and there were milestones in terms of in unexpected ways. We were the first to offer online fundraising. So online fundraising, which is ubiquitous today, was not possible, first of all, before there was online, but also the Federal Elections Commission had a rule against making a contribution with a credit card.

20:30 John Aristotle Phillips: And the theory at the time was, well, credit cards can be very dangerous because it might be a corporate credit card, and then you make a contribution with a corporate credit card and then you have a corporation corrupting the election. You can get cash, right, which is a lot easier if your objective is to corrupt an election. So, but it effectively prevented online contributions, that you could not put a contribution on a credit card. We challenged that rule, along with another company in this space, another pioneer, and we said, “Look, there’s no reason that credit cards can’t be used. You got the same disclosure issues, you gotta disclose who made the contribution, and if it was a company that did it, you gotta disclose that.” So anyway, long story short, there have been a lot of changes and many of them things you wouldn’t conceive of.

21:23 Aaron Ross Powell: As we move further and further into an era where campaigns are relying on data, and the bigger the campaign, the more data and the more they want access to. Do we run into situations where almost the campaigns kind of are drowning in data, with the data there’s diminishing returns. I mention so years ago at Cato we had, when there were the fusion centers that were set up after September 11th, so that law enforcement intelligence groups could talk to each other and we had a panel discussion here. And I remember much of the discussion was, and you saw this with the NSA surveillance stuff was, if all you’re doing, if you’re just trying to get your hands on data, at some point the data becomes almost counter-productive, because you just… You have so much of it that you can’t figure out what it means and so you have to go back to just ordinary detective work to find the terrorists, or whatever. Do we run that risk in campaigning? Do sometimes campaigns just like… Well, if I just get more data I’ll win but there’s like, what do you do with it?

22:24 John Aristotle Phillips: Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Look, if you don’t have a… It’s one of the reasons I do foreign campaigns and find them so enlightening and rewarding in a way, is because you get back to the message, right? So you get back to how important… What the ballot question is? What is a voter in Uganda? What’s on her mind, when she walks up and checks the box and stands in the sun all this time and then finally gets to the front of the line, checks the box, casts her ballot, sometimes at great risk to their personal safety or the family’s security. The data and the software and the online funding, everything we’ve talked about, it is, yes. If you run a… Often in a political campaign, you have no control over three of the four things that make, that decide what it’s gonna be among them, being the state of the economy. [laughter] You have no control over the state of the economy.

23:29 John Aristotle Phillips: Who your opponent’s gonna be, you have no control over that, somebody else picked your opponent. But you do have control over… Oh, then surprises, right? External factors, war, peace, all this other stuff goes on. But you do have control over the quality of the campaign you run, and that’s where the data does come in. And yes, there’s too much data, people, I’ve seen it happen before where campaigns have very sophisticated systems and they pull the wrong voters to the polls on election day. I think that’s what happened in large part [chuckle] in 2016.

24:00 Paul Matzko: Oh, interesting.

24:02 Paul Matzko: Alright, so you don’t need to pull the wrong voters, too many of the wrong voters when elections are decided by a couple thousand votes in certain areas. And so if you get… It’s not just the wrong data, but it’s misinterpreting how to use the data and then on top of that, and more important than all that is what’s your message? And how credible you are? And are you a good carrier of that message? And do people like you? That’s a big part of it too.

24:33 Paul Matzko: So, that’s tantalizing, where I think our listeners are gonna perk up when they hear 2016 wrong voters pulled at the polls, flesh it out a little bit for us.

24:41 John Aristotle Phillips: Well, I think in certain turnout models, if you are… I’ll over-simplify it. Your polling and your analysis and your strategy, they’re designed… Every voter gets assigned, in simplistic terms, a 1, 2 or 5, right? 5, meaning, I’ve got her, she’s gonna vote for me. And 1 means nah, I hope she stays home on election day, right. And so you pull your 5s first and then you pull your 4s and then you have to think really hard about whether you wanna pull your 3s. It depends on where you are and how confident you are, and you think the wins… A lot of factors that are scientific and a lot of factors that are not scientific. That assumes you’re able to pull your voters at all. So you have a campaign structure set up and some money and etcetera.

25:39 John Aristotle Phillips: If you overshoot the mark and there’s no… It’s like a kid in a go cart without a governor on the engine, you just keep going faster and faster and you plow through your 5s and your 4s and you have this well-oiled machine that starts turning out 3s, and maybe God forbid 2s, or the ground has shifted underneath you in a particular area, and those people that were 3s or actually should be 2.5s or 2s, you can find yourself in a situation where you’re pulling the wrong kinds of voters. I think this happens often in political campaigns, where they have the execution down, they’ve got tons of volunteers, and they’re loaded for bear and they snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Sometimes, yeah, the turnout numbers in this last election in 2018 are phenomenal. It is a historically high turnout by almost a third more than in an off-year election. So everybody was turning out. Everybody was turning out their voters this last election, did somebody… Did some of the wrong voters get turned out by the opposition? Probably… Yeah.

26:51 Paul Matzko: When your margins of few tens of thousands of votes across the couple of states, on a national election or it’s a few hundred or a few thousand votes in some of these close, who are now going to recount elections, right, that makes a big difference.

27:03 John Aristotle Phillips: Look, if you campaign, if you decide you’re not gonna campaign in Wisconsin, and instead you’re gonna campaign in Arizona as a presidential candidate on the Democratic side, your turn out, you’re operating on faulty information. Okay. And the faulty information doesn’t just, isn’t just how we’re doing in Arizona but it’s also…

27:28 John Aristotle Phillips: You’re assuming…

27:28 Aaron Ross Powell: You’re so confident that you’re doing really well in places where you’re not doing so well that you end up losing Pennsylvania.

27:36 Paul Matzko: So, turning from domestic elections to overseas, you’d mentioned Kenya [27:41] ____. You were in Kenya to help, if I understand it correctly, the opposition party was running a candidate against the ruling government in Nairobi and there had been some really disturbing questions about fraud in the previous election cycle, there had been violence. So set that up for us. What were you exactly trying to do for the opposition party there?

28:05 John Aristotle Phillips: So in Kenya, Aristotle was hired by Raila Odinga, and Odinga is a Kenyan political leader. He was well known in terms of what he stood for. He is a gifted politician, in my view. He was running against Kenyatta, who was the incumbent. And Kenyatta also had some things to be said for him, but obviously I thought that Odinga was really… Had a great message, a great background and would make a great president of Kenya. As you point out, the election, against the backdrop, Kenya is supposed to be the cradle of democracy in Africa, it’s supposed to be the shining star. It’s how the rest of the continent, and you don’t need to look very far to see examples of places where it’s just a shambles and the elections are a sham and… Yeah, but Kenya’s supposed to be above that. And there are many, many millions of Kenyans who desperately want that to be the case.

29:26 John Aristotle Phillips: We were hired to help with the strategy and the transparency of the election day operations and transparency, and had been operating in the country for some time working with Odinga’s campaign and the party. About two weeks before the election, the technical head of the elections commission was abducted and murdered, dismembered, and his body was dumped in the jungle. Despite the offers from Scotland Yard, from the FBI to help investigate the murder, the Kenyan government declined to take advantage of that at the time. So that was two weeks before the election. The election was marred with irregularities. Before election day, so this is the weekend before the election, what happened was, my colleague, one of the people that works for Aristotle, was abducted and I was abducted. Guys came in with the hoodies, broke through the door, handcuffed me and tossed me in the trunk of a car and off we went.

30:51 Paul Matzko: So you know in your mind that this was after the abduction and murder of…

30:54 John Aristotle Phillips: After the murder of Msando, yeah.

30:56 Paul Matzko: Okay, wow. [chuckle] That’s running through your minds, okay.

31:00 John Aristotle Phillips: I’ve been involved in political campaigns in a lot of rough places. I was involved in the campaign in Afghanistan for the man who’s currently the president of Afghanistan. And Tunisia, the first real election after the Arab Spring. So I’m accustomed to a certain amount of risk, but… So, we were abducted and for about 24 hours, we were held, unable to communicate at one point. I don’t know if we have time to talk about this, but it sort of in terms of what happened during the 24 hours it was, I’ll put it this way, it was undemocratic.

[laughter]

31:50 John Aristotle Phillips: The bigger tragedy was that the elections really were quite flawed. We had turned the corner. I say we, I really mean Odinga had turned the corner with the help of his supporters and the many millions of Kenyans that wanted a change in Kenya. The polling indicated that we were doing much better and Odinga really had changed the entire tone and likely outcome of the election in a debate performance that Kenyatta did not bother to show up for. So there was a certain contempt for the democratic process, but also it’s hard ball and there’s a lot at stake. There’s been a power sharing agreement that’s been entered into. How that evolves we’ll see.

32:53 John Aristotle Phillips: Odinga is, as I say, a gifted leader. There are other very gifted Kenyan politicians that strive for democracy, who will… That we’ll hear about in the future. It’s by far and away not the worst place I’ve run an election campaign and I love Kenya, and I love the Kenyans. I’d love to go back, but I can’t go back right now.

33:16 Paul Matzko: Especially not at the risk of being abducted again. [chuckle] So I think some set of our listeners are gonna hear that story and think about an American political campaign consultant going overseas to help run a campaign in countries with sometimes questionable adherence to democratic norms, though Kenya has a more stable democratic foundation than, say, Afghanistan or Tunisia did when you were there, and they’re gonna think about, maybe, someone who has more headlines in a similar situation, they’re gonna think maybe Paul Manafort, someone else, an American political campaign consultant, known for running campaigns in unstable countries going through political turmoil. So how is what you’re doing different than, say, what Paul Manafort was doing?

34:09 Paul Matzko: I think I remember reading, you ran a campaign in Ukraine, I don’t know if it was at the same time Paul Manafort was also in Ukraine. What’s that… Not whether you have a personal relationship with Paul Manafort but… That idea of Americans exporting political campaign consultancy to countries around the world. How does that play when something like Paul Manafort happens, is that hard for Aristotle ‘cause people aren’t thinking, “Oh, he backed this sympathetic dissident in Kenya,” they’re thinking, “Oh, another American getting involved and intervening in foreign politics.”

34:48 John Aristotle Phillips: Right. So it’s a great question and it’s not a question that we don’t ask ourselves in terms of what’s our role gonna be. I mean, we get… I’d like to think because of our reputation, track record, we get asked to consider working in many countries, and occasionally we turn it down. What we do is… And I’m making, I’m not connecting this to Manafort at all.

35:19 Paul Matzko: Sure. Sure.

35:20 John Aristotle Phillips: What we do is bring modern Western-style campaign techniques and technology and even strategy to campaigns, where… And to places where that can make a difference. We often find ourselves on the opposite side, sometimes on the same side as other Western, and by that I mean British, French, Italian, Spanish, Greek, German campaign teams that we’ve either been on the opposite side of in places where we’ve run elections or on the same side. So the demand for, campaign for competent campaign management, especially, especially when it comes to election day tabulation and transparency. A lot of these elections are disputed, and they’re disputed… We have recounts going on here right now, but a lot of these election results are disputed because there is… And there’s often widespread evidence of cheating, right?

36:39 John Aristotle Phillips: Being able to… Spotting the signs and being able to do the kind of forensics to say, “Look, had it not been for the destruction of all these ballot boxes over here, or these 125% of the registered voters in this part of Ukraine could not have voted all for the Moscow-backed candidate.” Those kinds of… The West has a stake in the outcome of these elections. I was always struck by just how many American government employees are employed in Kenya, it’s a very large number. They’re doing security, they’re doing wildlife protection, all kinds of things, so the US has a stake there as well, so we’re quite proud of the work that we do. The campaigns and the environments in which we find ourselves, it’s not Democracy 101, but we think we can make a difference and we’re quite open about it.

37:48 John Aristotle Phillips: Anybody goes in and does this and thinks it’s gonna be a secret that they’re walking around a place like Kenya, especially if you look like me, you’re not fooling anybody. And to the level, to the extent as we said before, to the extent that the quality of the campaign, the communication, especially where there’s gonna be election cheating, that you can communicate that quickly, you can spot it, you can deter it or, worst case, you can quantify it, after the case. That’s important, it’s important whether the US government recognizes regimes that are elected with flawed democratic process, if we wanna say that we’re supporting a democratically-backed government in a particular country, then the democratic process should be allowed to work its way through the election.

[music]

38:36 Paul Matzko: We ran long in our interview with John tonight, so we decided to cut the episode into two parts. Tune in next week as we change topics to discuss the political prediction market that calls elections more accurately than any poster. We’ll also talk about John’s well-earned reputation back in the day as the A-Bomb Kid, who designed a nuke in his college dorm room. You heard that right. Until then, be well.

39:02 Paul Matzko: Building Tomorrow is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy our show please rate, review and subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. To learn about Building Tomorrow or to discover other great podcasts visit us on the web at libertarianism.org.