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

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Magazine / COVER STORY

It’s a Small World, After All

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

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

photo of Reid Wilson
September 8, 2011

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.

Later, those supporters helped fund Dean’s campaign. At some points during the race, money from online contributors was coming in faster than the campaign could process it. In the third quarter of 2003, Dean’s campaign raised almost $15 million entirely from individuals—at the time, a record for a Democratic presidential primary. In total, his team took in more than $20 million online, according to a 2004 paper by Alexis Rice, then a fellow at the Center for the Study of American Government at Johns Hopkins University. That was about 40 percent of Dean’s total.

What makes online fundraising so effective is the fact that someone willing to give once is probably willing to give a second time. Following up with a donor through e-mail is cheap. “Ultimately, any tool or technology that gets a message out to an audience that otherwise might not be tapped and is receptive to that message is going to be useful from a finance standpoint, especially since online donations are often smaller and recurring,” said Liz Mair, a former online communications director at the Republican National Committee. Broadening a fundraising base using the Internet, Mair said, helps campaigns “diminish their reliance on a finite pool of big-money donors.”

The initial efforts at outreach, through “meetups,” metastasized into far more complex campaign tactics. Suddenly, videos filmed by news organizations could be spread to target audiences online. Hundreds of thousands watched Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., say he had voted for an $87 billion supplemental appropriation for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before he voted against the same funding.

It took only two years for tacticians to take that video technology to another level. Late in the 2006 campaign, Sen. George Allen, R-Va., facing an unexpectedly tough reelection challenge from former Navy Secretary Jim Webb, referred to an Indian-American campaign tracker as “Macaca,” a perceived racial slur. The video hit the servers of a new company called YouTube; hundreds of thousands watched it, and before Allen’s team had a chance to respond, negative impressions set in.

YouTube’s impact went far beyond ruining a Republican senator. It allowed campaigns to send out “mailings” in a new way. Supporters hardly like to study press releases, but they will happily sit through a video that reinforces a belief or offers a new spin. A campaign that e-mails a video to a supporter has a much higher chance of getting its message across. This year, President Obama’s team eschewed the traditional bragging rights a campaign likes to claim when announcing fundraising numbers; instead, tens of thousands of people tuned in to a Web video in which campaign manager Jim Messina gave highlights of the report he filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Before Tim Pawlenty dropped out of the GOP presidential race this year, he released Web videos that looked like trailers for a Michael Bay movie, full of quick cuts and soaring images. This innovation also exposed campaign messages to a wider audience: Every time Pawlenty released a Web video, Fox News played it repeatedly—airtime that the network wouldn’t accord to even the most poetically worded press release.

The Web’s influence hardly ends with e-mailed videos. The average American roams far beyond his or her electronic in-box, and campaigns have spent the past several years working to engage voters in online places where they already spend time, such as Facebook or Twitter. That effort to reach into someone’s social circle is the new frontier—a way to expand a campaign’s reach dramatically by giving supporters a new way to volunteer.

The focus on social networks was central to online strategy in 2008, when then-Sen. Barack Obama took communication with voters to previously unforeseen heights. All told, 55 percent of the American adult population got involved in the political process online in 2008—whether to learn something about the candidates, volunteer, or contribute money—according to data compiled by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. That’s a huge portion of the 61.6 percent of voters who ended up casting a ballot.

REDEFINING OUTREACH

It is a mistake to view the Internet as a one-way avenue of communication. Instead, the innovations in political technology have made campaigns interactive: Supporters choose the messages they want to disseminate, and voters choose the messages they want to receive. “You don’t force [voters] to come to you,” said Zac Moffatt, who runs digital strategy for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. “You go to them.”

The modern campaign is less a hierarchy than a flat organization. Obama’s groundbreaking platform, My.BarackObama.com, is the pinnacle to which all others aspire. The product of years of development, beginning with Dean’s campaign in 2004, the site is itself a social network. Supporters build their own platforms, share content with their social circles, and even select volunteer opportunities. “When you think about grassroots concepts of organizing, it’s always been based in a precinct, which is a geographic boundary. That’s always been sort of the smallest unit of grassroots politics,” said John Hancock, a Republican consultant based in Missouri. “People’s precincts are no longer the neighborhood surrounding their homes. It’s people’s contact lists.”

Today, Obama’s team puts a premium on expanding even those horizons. His Republican rivals do the same. Campaigns have sought out programmers who make digital outreach their forte. Obama has already built an online campaign team run by Michael Slaby, who holds the position of chief integration and innovation officer and reports directly to Messina. Pawlenty’s campaign was still in the pre-exploratory phase when it enlisted the services of Engage and Hynes Communications, two of the top Republican technological firms in the business, but it nevertheless trumpeted those signings loudly.

Consider the potential multiplier effect behind these investments. A campaign ad run during the Super Bowl, for example, may cost $2 million to reach 100 million Americans for 30 seconds. But that same ad on the candidate’s Facebook page may be exponentially more effective. The average Facebook user has 130 friends and connections to 80 community pages, according to the company’s statistics. If that average user re-posts Obama’s latest video, it appears in a river of information on his or her page, where it can live for hours or even days. So if just a fraction of Obama’s 22 million Facebook fans repost the video, it can reach a significant portion of the American electorate for a prolonged period of time at little expense.

Pawlenty’s team, in particular, pushed the boundaries on Facebook. Its application, which supporters could download, allowed the campaign to post directly onto a supporter’s individual Facebook wall: The supporter didn’t even need to engage for the campaign to disseminate its new ad. When Pawlenty withdrew from the race, he had more than 100,000 fans on Facebook; if all of those people had downloaded the application, Pawlenty would have been able to reach a massive percentage of all Americans who are on Facebook.

Of course, new developments take several cycles to hone. Until they have been perfected, innovations sometimes carry a certain danger for campaigns: “shiny object syndrome,” in the words of a senior Obama campaign official who asked not to be named discussing political strategy. This is the urge to create technology for technology’s sake, rather than to fulfill a concrete political need. Campaign resources are scarce, after all, and technology is simply a waste if it doesn’t add to the overall chance of success for a reasonable cost. In 2010, for example, Senate candidate Chuck DeVore in California spent about $5,000 on a fundraising application for mobile devices. That investment yielded just about $1,000 in contributions, according to a source with knowledge of his campaign’s fundraising strategy and performance. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell spent $120,000 on text-messaging in 2009, collecting about 30,000 cell-phone numbers at a cost of approximately $4 per number and proving that text-messaging technology may not be cost-effective for statewide candidates just yet. “The program wasn’t a disappointment. It wasn’t a raging success,” McDonnell’s campaign manager, Phil Cox, says. “It was somewhere in between.”

Technology alone has not been a deciding factor in an election—yet. Obama would probably have defeated Sen. John McCain in 2008 even without his campaign’s technological breakthroughs. The technology certainly helped, especially in the Democratic primary against Hillary Rodham Clinton, but, so far, evidence does not show that technology and innovation alone are capable of winning a political contest. Dean, after all, lost his race to John Kerry’s more traditional campaign juggernaut, even as his success on the Internet propelled him from the fringes to the head of the pack. Pawlenty, the candidate who was using technology most aggressively, still flailed far behind the front-runners, unable to get out of the low single digits.

INSIDE THE CAMPAIGN

Voter outreach, volunteer recruitment, fund­raising, and even opposition research now require a robust and forward-thinking technology team. Any Republican presidential candidate who can’t at least compete with Obama’s online organization is going to be at a nearly fatal disadvantage in the general election; in fact, that candidate probably won’t survive the primary, given other campaigns’ focus on online outreach.

This year, the goal is to do a better job of integrating across traditional and nontraditional campaign platforms, several Internet strategists say. By the end of this cycle, a well-run campaign will no longer have separate technology teams handling those responsibilities. Cross-cutting teams will be embedded within the field program or the fundraising department. “There was still a gap between online organizing and off-line organizing. They were different programs,” a senior member of Obama’s technology staff said. “That’s a false dichotomy. There should just be organizing.”

An outdated model, for example, would require a volunteer to go to a campaign office, pick up a paper list of swing voters to call, and begin dialing on one of dozens of phone lines set side by side among pizza boxes and coffee cups. Now, that volunteer can get an e-mail from campaign headquarters with the names and numbers of targeted voters and then pick up her own phone, log into her campaign-issued account, and make the pitch. The campaign saves space, the volunteer saves time, and every action he or she takes is instantaneously logged in the campaign’s central database.

The way those voters are targeted has been a critical development in recent years, too, thanks to strategists such as Democrats Mark Penn and Mark Mellman and Republicans Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. The data we make available—through our everyday purchases of gas and groceries, combined with our magazine subscriptions and even our video rentals—help data-crunchers segment us into manageable blocs. Someone who reads The New Yorker and shops at Whole Foods, for example, is much more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate than someone who reads Forbes and shops at Safeway.

In fact, voters’ everyday preferences say a lot about the messages they’ll be receptive to. This idea is what gave birth to specialized analytical blocs like “soccer moms” in the 1990s—middle-class women who cared more about the robust economy than about President Clinton’s personal scandals. By 2004, it was “security moms,” many of them soccer moms who now preferred George W. Bush because they thought he was more likely to keep the country safe from terrorist attacks. In 2012, the crucial voting blocs—probably white male voters who have attended college but are worried about their place in the economy—will attract some shorthand name of their own. Campaigns will target them using their common consumption traits, data that are available for purchase on the open market.

Consider, too, how the advent of smartphone technology and electronic tablets will transform the drudgery of doorbelling. Instead of fumbling with a written walk list, a volunteer or paid staffer can check his iPad for information about the house he is approaching—who lives there and what kind of pitch might work best. The volunteer adds any additional details collected to the database. The campaign, in turn, meticulously tracks those tidbits of information.

In the Web video announcing Obama’s second-quarter fundraising haul earlier this month, Messina said that the campaign had already held 31,000 face-to-face meetings and 290,000 individual conversations with voters. Patrick Hynes, a former Pawlenty backer who heads Hynes Communications, said, “Every field guy now is armed only with an iPad, and they are keeping a full file on every household and every human being and every checkpoint about that house. They’re adding that information to a database that already exists. It’s going to streamline the hell out of door-to-door campaigning.”

But a voter doesn’t need to log onto a computer to be within reach of a campaign. The explosion of the smartphone industry means that e-mail is a constant presence in our lives, and it’s still expanding. The top five best-selling cell phones these days are all smartphones, according to data compiled by CTIA, the wireless industry’s lobbying association in Washington. Between 55 percent and 60 percent of Americans own a smartphone, according to some estimates, and even the most basic forms of smartphone communication can be effective. The “open rate” for a text message is close to 100 percent, while the rate at which people open their e-mail may be closer to 10 percent, if a campaign is lucky.

Chris Taylor, a Republican new-media strategist, said that campaigns are likely to follow examples set by corporations that have successfully integrated text-message outreach. And though cell-phone numbers aren’t published in a directory, Americans tend to give them up easily. Virtually every campaign these days has a short code, a five- or six-digit number that cell-phone users can send messages to; today, candidates use them to persuade potential supporters to opt into receiving campaign communications. Once a campaign has your cell-phone number, however, it has the beginning of a valuable relationship. You might start as a supporter and then become a volunteer or a donor.

Campaigns ask supporters for concrete pledges—show up at an event, donate money, spread the message—and then reward them for following through. Successful corporations, Taylor said, provide incentives to attract new fans: Follow a business on Twitter or “like” its page on Facebook and you might get a T-shirt. A campaign could throw in a bumper sticker or access to a conference call for supporters. “We’ve asked for something for years,” Taylor said. “Now we need to give back to them.”

That sort of incentive program can lift a campaign above the constant barrage the average American endures on a daily basis. The fragmented media environment means that voters are as likely to get news from their friends on Twitter or Facebook as they are from a network news anchor such as Brian Williams or Diane Sawyer; as likely to base their opinions on an e-mail push product as from comments by pundits Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann. “People don’t have a single platform they rely on” for media consumption, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. “Instead of news coming to them at the appointed time that the creators give out, they access it when they want it.”

Data collected by Rainie’s organization show that more Americans are seeking out news, especially political news, from organizations that share their point of view. More than a third of voters, according to a 2010 Pew Research Center survey, say they typically get campaign news from sites that share their ideologies, including campaign websites, up from about a quarter of Americans who said the same in 2004. Those who identify as Democrats or Republicans are far more likely to get their news from like-minded sources than are self-described independents.

This self-selection has isolated us within our own virtual precincts; we segregate ourselves not by geography but by ideology. With the rise of talk radio and partisan blogs, we can now, with a click of a mouse or a flick of the dial, listen only to what affirms our own beliefs.

All of this has contributed to the increase in strident partisanship that has ground Washington to a halt. Pols once worked with each other as a matter of course, especially in the Senate. Now, a senator’s harshest partisans believe that those on the other side of the aisle are wrong on every subject—and what’s more, they’re told, those opponents wish the country ill. The result is that a conservative Republican senator such as Utah’s Robert Bennett can be branded a traitor to his own party for having the temerity to work with a Democrat (in Bennett’s case, with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, on a health care measure that never resulted in a single bill, committee meeting, or floor debate).

Washington’s professional political organizations have advanced this trend toward homogenization. Talk to any local-level tea party organizer—someone who ostensibly represents an independent group of voters who share a few loose ideological principles—and you are sure to hear the same talking points in Miami as you do in Medford, Ore. Groups like FreedomWorks, run from Washington, help distribute the bullet points that keep the average tea partier on message, just as the Obama campaign does with its volunteer organizers around the country.

CHANGING OUR POLITICS

Technology has allowed us to connect with concurring minds while shutting out those we disagree with. Partisan positions are hardening, and the growing middle that sees neither side as entirely correct finds itself increasingly without a voice in the halls of a polarized Congress. The self-selection that brings us so much closer is having the consequence of driving us all further apart.

The growing division leads both sides to double down on appeals to their base—groups of liberals and conservatives who are routinely whipped into a frenzy of anger toward the other side. Campaigns must pit their communications against everything else that is vying for a consumer’s attention. “The successful campaigns will operate more like media companies than traditional political organizations. They will need to produce, distribute, promote, and engage with key audiences around more and better content,” Reich says. “Not just sound bites or 140-character updates, but serious, substantive discussions of the issues.” He wants to see campaigns launch dedicated policy channels, Web-based podcasts, and radio shows.

In fact, stealing supporters’ attention from the press has become a key component in operating a campaign. Messina’s video on fund-raising received more than 70,000 views in just a week, according to YouTube. Obama himself asked donors to contribute a small amount of money to enter a drawing for dinner with the president and vice president; that video garnered more than 150,000 views in less than a week. Pawlenty’s videos exposed the candidate to hundreds of thousands of people and won him plenty of free time on Fox News.

But the master of circumventing the media to deliver an unadulterated message is, without a doubt, Sarah Palin. The former Alaska governor and Fox News personality is the closest thing Republicans have to a political celebrity. Her legions of fans are so devoted that her every tweet or Facebook post is spread around the globe within moments. Palin’s ability to attract such a large audience also attracts media attention. Any word from the Oracle of Alaska is worth at least a few segments on MSNBC, Fox News, or CNN. Few others are able to duplicate Palin’s reach, but trying—as every candidate does with his or her Web video announcements—has become de rigueur.

It’s not only the press that is circumvented. Today, traditional power bases of both parties—labor (for Democrats) and social-conservative groups (for Republicans)—are in decline. Union membership rolls are shrinking, while the culture wars that define better economic times have subsided as the economy struggles to rebound. Republican presidential candidates this year are actually able to defy social-conservative groups in a way they haven’t for generations. As that power base wanes, candidates—notably, Obama himself—strive to build their own brands independent of their parties. Like Obama in 2008, any Republican with hopes of knocking him off must appeal to a middle that is deeply skeptical of traditional party power bases. But, first, they must reach primary voters, who are more inclined to make voting decisions based on what they read online rather than on what their church pamphlet recommends.

Today, a robust digital strategy—and the ability to innovate—are essential to a campaign’s success; Americans are bombarded by information, and a campaign’s message is just one among many vying for limited attention. The struggle to break through is as real as the struggle any newspaper faces in winning readers. “The irony is that while there have never been more ways to reach prospective voters, it’s never been harder to connect with them,” Reich said. The outreach a campaign must do has become immeasurably easier, and yet immeasurably harder.

The proliferation of partisan blogs, which focus outraged liberal and conservative anger on their own parties, has contributed significantly to the partisan divide in Washington. At the same time, technology has brought us closer together across geographic boundaries, although largely inside ideological ones. And as Moore’s Law predicted, the rate of innovation seems to be increasing every year. During the debt-ceiling debate, Obama offered what might be a preview of where these changes will next take us when he complained that “compromise” has become a dirty word in Washington. As each side uses technology to dig deeper into its partisan trench, campaigning becomes easier, but compromise—and, therefore, governing—becomes more difficult.

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