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It’s a Small World, After All It’s a Small World, After All

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COVER STORY

It’s a Small World, After All

Campaigns are using technology to bring us together, even as they’re driving us apart.

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From his mouth to their ears: Reporters at a 2008 speech by Sen. Barack Obama.(Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The partisan gap in America is growing. Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill inherently distrust each other, and the ever-expanding ranks of independent voters outside the Beltway don’t trust anyone who clings to a party orthodoxy. From our education level to our income to our social standing, we are becoming a more stratified society—and, philosophically, the layers are increasingly growing apart.

And yet, the world is somehow getting smaller. We can communicate just as easily with people who live across the globe as with those who live down the block. The definition of “neighbor” seems to be changing. We can call, text, e-mail, post on a Facebook wall, direct-message on Twitter—and now we can link up on Google+. We can even, heaven forbid, write a letter.

 

This paradox of a divided and yet interconnected world is changing the way candidates win elections. Campaign tacticians are, in essence, returning to the basics, to a system where the political machines control their wards. Today, however, the wards are defined less by geography than by social boundaries and networks. The pace of technology and the advent of new tools to organize, survey, and mine populations enable a single campaign organization—whether based in Chicago or Austin or Boston—to keep more accurate tabs than ever before on the population that will render an electoral judgment in 2012. And these tools grow in sophistication every year.

In the process, we are breaking down two traditional barriers to a campaign’s success. First, strategists can more easily circumvent the press to deliver their messages. “We don’t get our information from just one channel. There is a whole ecosystem of opportunities to seek out information, or to sit around
and wait to be influenced,” said Brian Reich, a senior vice president of Edelman Digital and the author of Shift & Reset: Strategies for Addressing Serious Issues in a Connected Society. He added, “Gone is the era when big-budget advertising and flashy marketing could redeem a shoddy product.”

Second, as a society, we are helping campaigns reach more voters by willingly abandoning our privacy. The 2012 presidential campaign will be the most personal campaign ever run, by both Democrats and Republicans, and we are happily providing every side with the data and access to allow it. We give our cell-phone numbers and e-mail addresses away freely; we post messages from campaigns directly to our own social networks, exponentially spreading their reach; and, thanks to data collectors who know the magazines we subscribe to and the credit cards we have, we are giving campaigns an unparalleled level of insight into our lives, virtually without a second thought.

 

The speed of these changes seems to be increasing every year, as innovation lands upon innovation. Call it the political equivalent of Moore’s Law, the trend first described by Intel cofounder George Moore in 1965. Moore predicted that the number of transistors on a microchip would roughly double every two years, increasing the speed of the computers on which we rely. In politics, the rapid advance of technology means that campaigns are speeding up their contacts with voters and concurrently shrinking the political universe.

THE NEXT BIG THING

Campaigns have always been eager consumers of the Next Big Thing. In the 1930s, President Roosevelt used radio as a medium for communicating directly with voters. John Kennedy’s understanding of television allowed him to draw a contrast with Richard Nixon in their 1960 debate. A decade later, candidates such as George McGovern and Jesse Helms pioneered direct-mail fundraising. The Republican National Committee was an early adapter, establishing a mail program that raked in money by the tens of millions over the next three decades.

As a society, we are helping campaigns reach more voters by willingly abandoning our privacy. The 2012 presidential campaign will be the most personal campaign ever run.

In recent years, campaign innovations have moved online. It was only a decade ago, in 2000, when Al Gore and George W. Bush became the first presidential candidates to use websites. It was largely a static exercise at that time; interested voters could endure excruciatingly slow dial-up speeds to browse the Bush or Gore websites if they wanted to read about the candidate’s position on a given issue. Probably few independent voters made up their minds based on the Internet that year. Just 30 percent of Americans told exit pollsters they regularly received political information online.

 

But the Web emerged as a potent political tool during the 2004 campaign, thanks to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean—or, more specifically, Dean’s legion of young fans. Those supporters organized themselves through websites like MeetUp.com, arranging gatherings of like-minded partisans who mobilized to help their candidate. What started out as a small group of 3,000 committed supporters in early 2003 became more than 140,000 by the end of the year. Dean’s poll numbers rose, too, from the low single digits to the head of the Democratic pack, according to a Wired magazine look at Dean’s use of online mobilization in early 2004.

This article appears in the September 10, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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