The data election: High tech and mundane tools in the American election

If the 2008 election campaign was all about CHANGE we can believe in, is 2012 all about DATA they can believe in?

Why does it matter which cars Republican voters drive or which beer Democratic voters drink? The candidate who microtarget the voters best, might end up winning the election, which is why it is useful for Obama to know that Budweisser and Heineken are preferred beers among his potential Democrats with low voter turnout.

Taking our country backThe book “Taking our country back: The crafting of networked politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama” by Daniel Kreiss takes us behind the digital scenes of the Democratic Party and explains how this trend has developed and what it means. For everyone interested in political campaigns as well as political use of technology and social media, you should definitively read this book.

Microtargeting is the big trend within the American presidential campaigns this year. The more information election campaigns have about potential voters, the more likely they are to approach them with relevant information, thinking goes. And the information or data comes from regular voting data, in addition to lifestyle data and user data from social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. Targeting has been a part of presidential campaigns for years, however, microtargeting has a fairly recent history, enhanced by technology.

The 2012 election campaigns are much “data heavier” than we have ever seen before. But at the same time, we know that the campaigns are spending a hugh amount on direct mail, and good ‘ol email is crucial to reach out to voters and run successful fundraising campaigns.

Politico journalist Lois Romano has a quote that gives you a pretty good pictures of the changes going on in the backbones or infrastructure of the campaigns:

”The depth and breadth of the Obama campaign’s 2012 digital operation — from data mining to online organizing — reaches so far beyond anything politics has ever seen, experts maintain, that it could impact the outcome of a close presidential election. It makes the president’s much-heralded 2008 social media juggernaut — which raised half billion dollars and revolutionized politics — look like cavemen with stone tablets.”

Daniel Kreiss has written an extensive and detailed book about how innovation, infrastructure and organization have structured and changed Democratic presidential campaigns since 2004, which allows for the data mining we now see. Kreiss, who is an Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has through fieldwork and interviews gotten access to key digital campaign people within the Democratic Party, and he demonstrates how changes within organizational culture and technology have developed improvements that culminated in Obamas’ victory in November 2008 (November 6 will show us if the winning streak will continue).

One of the main points in Kreiss’ examination is that the Obama campaign new media strategy didn’t bring about a qualitatively new form of politics. But by researching the structured interactivity and the computational management of the Obama campaign, we can learn some interesting lessons about contemporary election campaigning. I’m interested in how these lessons relates to other countries outside the US, for example in Norway and Sweden.

Here are some other points I find interesting:

Mobilization

After the victory in 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign was celebrated for running an amazing social media campaign that energized grassroots. However, the engagement that seemed to develop from below, out of nowhere, through social media tools such as MeetUp and Facebook, didn’t just happen out of nowhere. Kreiss documents how this was part of the strategy. If the Obama campaign was to have any chance against Hillary Clinton in the primaries, the campaign needed to expand the electorate, to engage non-registered voters and groups who traditionally had lower voter turnout (youth and African Americans). This is just one of the reasons why social media became crucial communication and mobilization tools. It is also worth noticing that both in 2008 and in 2012, the Obama campaign has hired programmers, statisticians, marketers, designers, etc to develop and execute the digital strategy (from companies such as Facebook, Google, startups, Blue State Digital, etc).

Donations and email

Howard Dean proved how small online donations can become huge amounts, and the Obama campaign advanced that art in 2007 and 2008, when the campaign raised half a billion online. Her are the numbers:

”3 million donors made a total of 6.5 million donations online adding up to more than $500 million. Of those 6.5 million donations, 6 million were in increments of $100 or less. The average online donation was $80, and the average Obama donor gave more than once.”

Through building up a huge email list (13 millions), the Obama campaign could reach out to potential voters as well as dedicated enthusiasts (check also out the excellent article by Rasmus Kleis Nielsen: Mundane Internet Tools, Mobilizing Practices, and the Coproduction of Citizenship in Political Campaigns). By rebuilding and fine-tuning the Democratic Party’s voter database VoteBuilder (starting in 2005), the foundation for microtargeting was established. Through computational management, the campaign could test out which messages worked best on email, social media, TV ads, online ads, etc, and then improve the message further.

In 2012, user data from social data is also added to the campaign’s data mix (in addition to regular voter and consumer data). The mixture of high-tech and mundane tools to reach out to potential voters, especially in swing states, is apparent also in this election:

“[S]ome people are going to get all of their stuff through Facebook, some people now do Twitter, some people are going to go directly to our website, some people like it on email, some people like it on text,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said.

High tech and mundane tools

We shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the backbone of the campaign, the voter database. “Shiny things” such as millions of likes or fancy YouTube-videos are impressive, but the VoteBuilder filled with voter data is at the heart of the campaign (the Republican’s voter file is called VoterVault). It is also worth noticing how the campaign is trying to engage people and gradually involve them in the campaign (similar to the Groundwire’s Engagement Pyramide):

  1. Get people to sign up for e-mail
  2. Get people to donate
  3. Get people to register to vote
  4. Get people to volunteer
  5. Get people to vote

The main goal is always clear: Win the election.

Kreiss argues that campaign innovations in infrastructure, organization and technology needs to be studied seriously, just as we need to understand why a political candidate communicates as he or she does in social media. He says “ this book argues that much of the scholarly literature in the electoral domain has the wrong object in view in focusing on the outcomes of this work, rather than the process that create information environment”.

Only 6 days away from the American election, we will soon know which campaign strategy worked best:  Barack Obama or Mitt Romney’s style of computation management.

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