Peak campaign-email season has not arrived just yet. The primaries are still many months away, and although candidates want to make sure that you know they exist, they know they probably have money and resources to pilfer from you yet.
Now, in the lazy summer heat, campaigns are content to simply get to know you, and one of the best ways to do that, as the New York Times shows, is by convincing you to buy an incredibly useless bit of merchandise from their online stores.
There, candidates aren’t only getting you to wear their brand out in broad daylight; they are learning your fears and dreams and whether you are the sort of person who will wear a pantsuit T-shirt in public. Even Rand Paul, patron saint of privacy, is not above using his campaign store to find out if you are a libertarian millennial who likes to party — otherwise known as someone who bought a Rand Paul cornhole set — or a libertarian yuppie who wears turtlenecks and invites friends over to eat cheese — otherwise known as someone who doesn’t mind that their wine glasses say Rand Paul on them.
It’s like filling out an OKCupid profile with your credit-card statements.
This is valuable information. As the campaigns learn more about individual voters they will be able to target them in a way that convinces supporters to give more money or volunteer for the campaign — just like Amazon learns how to read your mind and puts products you desperately want to buy on your homepage.
If you buy a pride T-shirt from Bernie Sanders, you will likely get an email from his campaign on how he feels about the upcoming Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. If you buy a “Future Voter” onesie from Hillary Clinton, she is going to start giving you updates on Charlotte Clinton Mezvinsky — and tell you about her stance on paid leave. If you buy a Ted Cruz phone case, his campaign might send you an email about signing up for text updates or his social-media accounts. If you buy a Mike Huckabee polo shirt, you will probably get all the emails because you have signaled that you will spend money on anything.
This isn’t the only way that campaigns are learning about you online, as National Journal points out. Even the emails you get after you buy something are testing what you like and what words are going to be most effective in getting you to part with your money, thanks to A/B testing, a practice now used by basically all organizations that send out emails for profit or fund-raising. “Looking at it cynically,” National Journal concludes, “mining Internet users’ data for political gain sounds vaguely Orwellian, where voters are turned into unwitting guinea pigs in a giant social experiment. Looking at it pragmatically, it’s just smart business.”
If this freaks you out, you can always wait until Urban Outfitters releases the 2015 version of its “2 Legit 2 Mitt” T-shirts, although no studies have proven that receiving daily “25 percent off” emails from Urban Outfitters is a slower way to make you lose your mind than daily emails from a 2016 candidate — or 20.