The New York Times recently ran this article about the sorry state of the digital campaign infrastructure in the Republican Party. By a staggering margin, operatives skilled in DD&A, or Digital, Data, and Analytics vote for Democrats. More importantly, they work for them- on the campaign teams themselves and in the firms that they contract.
What do these digital operatives do exactly? And what has the grassroots movement to cut big money out of politics been bringing to this fight? Let's look at this piece by piece.
Digital campaigns include social media presence including things like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It also includes tools that help campaigns reach out to individual supporters to raise money, organize volunteers, and get the word out about upcoming events.
Obama’s 2008 campaign has been recognized by Republicans and Democrats alike to have revolutionized digital campaigns. In 2007, Chris Hughes (now the publisher of the New Republic) left his post as one of the co-founders of Facebook to join Obama’s “New Media” campaign. There he set up My.BarackObama.com, or MyBo, as a way to connect Obama supporters with each other in the lead up to the primaries. Obama supporters could punch in their address into MyBo and join groups of volunteers based on location or affinities (Veterans, teachers, etc.). They raised record amounts of money, organized scores of volunteers, and filled the crowds at campaign events.
Modern electioneering occurs in the overlap between Big Money and Big Data. The 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) required each state to compile a master list of voter files. These show the names of who voted, but not how they voted. Additional information listed on these rolls, such as contact information, varies state by state, but in reality that doesn’t really matter. Parties and political communications firms buy these rolls from the State, and then in turn sell them to campaigns that cross reference them with consumer data from places like grocery stores and your digital footprint from sites like Facebook and Google, resulting in a terrifyingly comprehensive profile of each voter. They then use these profiles to predict voting behavior and prioritize outreach accordingly. Some of this is intuitive. Primary voters tend to be more politically active, so they get called first. Some of this is less intuitive. If you buy high-end toilet paper, you’re more likely to get a call from a phone-banker come election time (because you’re more likely to vote), and whether it’s a Democrat or Republican on the other end of the phone might depend on whether you drink bourbon or cognac.
But those techniques are over a decade old. Democrats have pioneered a new wave of outreach prioritization through analytics.
It should be clear by now that modern campaigning is more than just envelope stuffing and calling through the phone book. Campaigns arrived at these methods through a long running arms race between Democrat and Republican campaign teams fueled by mutual secrecy, jealousy, and fear of rival capabilities. It’s a world where technology builds from one campaign to the next, but almost never crosses party lines. This results in starkly different cultures around technology in the two camps, the primary difference being the Democratic Party’s close ties to academics who turn campaigning into a science.
Democrat data crunchers often pool their resources with behavioral scientists to run randomized control trials to find outreach methods that are most effective in two fields: winning the support of voters, and getting supporters to the ballot box. Here is Sasha Issenberg’s example of data cruncher Aaron Strauss working for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC).
In June, the DCCC ran what Strauss called a “persuasion-microtargeting experiment,” to test Democratic messages on voters in the field. Experiments found pockets of voters who moved in their direction in response to particular appeals: After hearing the party’s message on Medicare, men over the age of 65 increased their support for a generic Democratic congressional candidate three points more than the broader population. The DCCC could build a profile of voters whose opinions it could change, even if the data about them didn’t portray them as perfect centrists.
Democrats break their voter rolls into hyper-specific categories and reach out with methods proven through experimentation. So while Ted Cruz’s campaign may be packed with “10 staffers who hold PhDs in behavioral science or analytics,” they will have to play catch-up with rivals who are years, if not decades ahead of them.
What’s important to note here is that while these systems enable supporters, they don’t create them. “We didn’t have to generate desire very often. We had to capture and empower interest and desire,” according to a chief tech officer on the 2008 Obama campaign.
There is interest in ending systemic corruption in Washington. 96% of voters agree that money in politics is a problem. What have we been doing on the front lines (front lawns?) of the grassroots campaign to “capture and empower” that interest?
Quite a bit, actually.
Though groups like Open Democracy don’t have floods of anonymous money flowing in to our campaign to buy out Silicon Valley-Madison Avenue-K-Street firms (imagine the rent!), true to the spirit of a grassroots organization, we do have friends willing to pitch in. Talented, generous friends.
Chris Bucchere in Austin, Texas created QuestionR, a web based app that compiles and displays user-recorded videos of voters asking candidates one question, “What specific reforms will you advance to end the corrupting influence of money in politics?” QuestionR also allows users to search for candidate speaking events near them by punching in their ZIP code, and sign up from there as a questioner.
Nationbuilder is a non-partisan outreach tool that helps organizations like NH Rebellion stay in touch with supporters, allowing us to keep them updated with news and upcoming events. It lets us know who has contributed money and who our strongest supporters are, but at the moment does not tell us what kind of booze they drink.
Democracy Matters, a campus based activist group, is currently working with Team Democracy, a group of design, coding, and marketing activists, to develop a program that allows volunteers to use their social media networks to help expand outreach capabilities.
But we also do low tech too.
Stamp Stampede works to stamp our message onto dollar bills, a tactic dating back to the Roman empire and used by the Suffragette movement in the United Kingdom, when activists defaced pennies with the phrase “Votes for Women”. Stamp Stampede estimates each stamped bill will hit a staggering 875 eyeballs. More stamped dollars means more people talking about money in politics.
In perhaps the lowest-tech campaign of all, the New Hampshire Rebellion has been walking across the Granite State, aiming to bring attention to the issue in the same way Doris “Granny D” Haddock did in 1999 did when she walked across the country at the age of 88 holding a sign that read “Campaign Finance Reform.” While we’ve been using the technology we have to help get the word out, ultimately what counts is volunteers doing their part.