PhotoWhat do you think of the presidential candidates and the issues they've been raising? They may have a better idea of your thoughts than you do thanks to research spanning tens of millions of Facebook users, harvested largely without their knowledge or permission.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has been closing in on front-runner Donald Trump in recent weeks and a big part of the reason may be the research commissioned for him by a billionaire benefactor, according to The Guardian and an earlier report by Politico.

Trump’s presidential campaign is using psychological data assembled, sliced, and diced by paid researchers at Cambridge University. These professionals have been gathering detailed psychological profiles of the U.S. electorate using a massive pool of mainly unwitting Facebook users. 

The Cambridge researchers are affiliated with Cambridge Analytica, which claims to collect "up to 5,000 data points on over 220 million Americans, and use more than 100 data variables to model target audience groups and predict the behavior of like-minded people."

The firm — owned in part by reclusive hedge fund magnate and leading Republican donor Robert Mercer — is using so-called “psychographic profiles” of U.S. citizens to help Cruz win votes, despite concerns about the ethical implications of the practice. 

Cruz is not the first candidate to benefit from this relatively new stealth weapon. The Obama presidential campaigns used similar research techniques and other candidates may be doing the same this year. Republican Ben Carson is also said to be a client of the firm, though on a much smaller scale than Cruz. 

Facebook Likes

The Cambridge researchers compile psychological data based on a treasure trove of Facebook “likes,” allowing them to match individuals’ traits with existing voter datasets -- identifying gun owners, for example.

The Guardian reported that its analysis of Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings shows Cruz’s campaign has paid Cambridge Analytica at least $750,000 this year. The company has received even more from Super Pacs to which Mercer and others have contributed. 

The Guardian reported that in an interview, Cruz said his approach is consciously modeled on Obama's -- "a data-driven, grassroots-driven campaign – and it is a reason why our campaign is steadily gathering strength.”

Is the Cambridge Analytica data the reason Cruz has lately been uniting factions within the GOP beyond his evaneglical and Tea Party base? Does it matter? It's up to voters to decide.

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