Technology is the Deciding Factor in Election Campaigns

The following is an article I wrote in BusinessWeek on Aug 25, 2008:

Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama have
each stamped elections with their innovative technology

Technology and an appreciation of how to use it have always been
important to political campaigns. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used radio
to get his message across effectively to voters. Lyndon Johnson rode a
helicopter to get him around Texas in his famous race for the Senate.
John F. Kennedy understood the power of television better than Richard
Nixon during the race for the Presidency in 1960. And Republican
operatives in the 1970s built direct mail into a fund-raising behemoth
that powered party gains for 20 years.

The current generation of Presidential candidates—and their
advisers, such as James Carville, Karl Rove, and David Axelrod—will
likely go down in history as even more innovative in their ability to
use technology to an advantage.

The 1992 Clinton campaign understood advertising via cable
television. Clinton’s advisers realized that instead of expensive
commercials on the networks, they could target a cable ad buy right
down to a Zip Code. They built an extremely sophisticated procurement
system to buy ads with the greatest impact. This was consequential:
Clinton is the only two-term U.S. President who never received a
majority of the vote, and one could argue that instrumental to his
victory was his campaign’s understanding of technology.

Today, all candidates for high political office follow the Clinton cable TV playbook.

Bush Microtargeting

In 2004, tech use by George W. Bush’s campaign defined his
reelection. Bush’s advisers, including Rove, invested in better ways to
reach voters in heavily Democratic areas. Precincts in inner cities and
certain suburbs have traditionally been 70% to 80% pro-Democrat;
Republican candidates wouldn’t even campaign there. But the Bush
campaign honed microtargeting to reach people who voted infrequently
and who might be open to their message.

The Bush campaign assembled information on millions of voters in
swing states and bombarded those people with messages they wanted to
hear. The campaign targeted people who vote often and are registered
Democrats, but whom the Bush team thought it had a chance of

According to Adrian Gray, the National Voter Contact Chairman for
Bush/Cheney 2004, the campaign was especially effective in targeting
African American voters in Ohio. Nationally, 8% of African Americans
voted for Bush, but in Ohio he received 16% of the African American
vote. The Bush campaign also focused on New Mexico, a state Bush lost
in 2000 by 366 votes, and microtargeted Hispanics. Result: The white
vote for Bush fell 2% in 2004, but his Hispanic vote increased
12%—enough to put him over the top in the state.

Tipping the Balance

This microtargeting strategy was the difference in the election.
Bush certainly would have lost without such successful targeting.
Essentially, Karl Rove took a page from the Oakland A’s highly
successful general manager, Billy Beane (the key subject of the best
seller Moneyball), and followed the data rather than simply gut instinct.

Now, just one election cycle later, most major candidates from both
parties have used sophisticated microtargeting. As it happens, we at Rapleaf
help many candidates, organizations, and unions—including some involved
in the 2008 election—analyze voters better to engage and activate

This Presidential cycle has already seen a highly improbable upset
for the Democratic nomination. Barack Obama beat his (initially) better
financed and more entrenched opponent, Hilary Clinton, at least in part
by deploying better technology. Obama’s campaign strategist, Axelrod,
has built a system from the ground up that does something quite simple:
It asks people for their help.

The Third “Ask”

In politics, supporters traditionally get two “asks” from
candidates: one for money, and one for a vote. That’s it. That means
most of the campaign work is done by a few paid staffers. Not a very
participatory democracy.

The Obama campaign has turned this notion on its head and built a
community involvement strategy. Axelrod and his team realized that
supporters of a political candidate are passionate and want to help.
And while most have full-time jobs and families, and can’t spend
weekends knocking on doors, they all have five minutes to spare to help
out. The Obama campaign has brilliantly taken advantage of this by
actually asking people for help. They’re letting a large number of
people do a small amount of work each.

So if you go to an Obama rally (or just sign up on his Web site),
you might be asked to call three voters in a swing state. Or if they
know you are a member of Digg
(the popular site that lets users vote on articles of interest),
Obama’s people may ask you to Digg an article that is favorable to
Obama or critical of his opponent. Or they might ask you to put a
bumper sticker on your MySpace page.

In 2012, all major candidates will be leveraging their supporters more
effectively. But for now, Obama’s campaign has the technology

See’s slide show for more on tech-savvy Presidential candidates.

(special thanks to Vivek Sodera for his help and edits)

2 thoughts on “Technology is the Deciding Factor in Election Campaigns

  1. Phillip Nelson

    Over the last few months I have been reading a lot about the sticky fissure that exists between federal government and media. I read that in 1936, the Democratic party still had not paid off all of their debts to NBC and CBS from the prior election. The broadcasters extended unlimited credit and no interest debt to the major parties, partially to ensure that they wouldn’t force the new technologies (radio) to give free airtime to political media. Therefore, they ensured that the utility of this new technology would still be a function of money.
    I think this is interesting because Howard Dean commandeered a great social media presence last cycle, which is mostly free or low-cost…
    but lost the nomination (I think) partially because he lost a favorable standing with traditional media. So I definitely agree with your premise, but clearly a successful campaign requires a balance between the new technologies and the old.
    I am working on a media project right now, and I look forward to attempting to value the attention of our users to political figures. A speech which is aired as news definitely has value to the candidate, and we should be able to quantify that by measuring the information cascade on my service. Thinking a few steps ahead, this must either result in attention becoming a political commodity, or a ridiculous amount of campaign reform.

  2. David Binetti

    Another example: Republicans pioneered the use of barcodes in the early 90s for absentee ballot requests. They sent out ballot requests with voter serial numbers pre-encoded. When the requests came back, you could pass the requests through a barcode scanner and track each individual response without any manual data-entry. The increased throughput (at least 20X) made broad-based absentee campaigns possible. Part of the ‘revolution of 94’ was a heavy emphasis on absentee balloting, made possible due to this innovation…


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