Data analysis, phone apps and social media are rapidly changing political campaigns

The detailed digital profile makes her conversation easy, even friendly. Taxes for you. Schools next door. Law enforcement down the street.

Some houses can be skipped: no potential votes here, the phone says. That vision or a version of it is popping up in political campaigns across the country.

“It’s a completely different environment,” said Stephanie Sharp, a Johnson County officeholder and consultant who uses and sells a version of the app. “There’s a gold mine of data. … You’re not cold calling when knocking on doors anymore. You know a little bit about your relationship with someone.”

No one is throwing the yard signs away. But the big-data digital revolution rocking media, entertainment, retailing and sports is coming to politics.

The change is arriving at a blistering pace.

“Things are moving very quickly,” said Jared Suhn of Singularis, a political consulting firm. “You shouldn’t be doing one thing anymore. You should be doing 10 things to 10 different groups of people.”

The shift is built around sophisticated and relatively inexpensive hardware and software that now give campaigns rich stores of private and public information — powerful tools for identifying voters and winning elections.

“Ten years ago it was TV and mail and radio,” Suhn said. “Now, you have so much more on-the-ground canvassing going on, strategic grassroots operations, digital stuff online. … There’s a way to get your message out.”

That message is first sharpened by polling and outreach, then reshaped for easy distribution to specific voters.

“You can target people literally to the house,” longtime consultant Jeff Roe said.

Fresh digital technologies emerge in every election cycle, enabling candidates and campaigns to become even more efficient and effective. A campaign’s most important hire is no longer the paid-media guru, it’s the algorithm guy.

Kansas City-based consultant Marcus Leach said combing through digital data allows him to instantly link voters with candidates and campaigns with friends and neighbors.

“It takes only a single ‘like,’ ‘share,’ or mention on Facebook or Twitter,” he said, “and our servers will automatically data mine that person’s Facebook, LinkedIn, look for associations, look for friends.”

The digital revolution in politics is relatively well-known to consultants and campaign managers, but candidates are now catching on too.

“You have to expand your footprint. To a different universe,” said Kelly Kultala, a Democrat now running for the 3rd district House seat in Kansas.

The move to a digitized democracy began to accelerate six years ago when then-candidate Barack Obama successfully used email and a social media presence to reach younger voters and raise money.

His campaign saw the future. Voters who signed up to learn Obama’s vice presidential pick found themselves in an email database, becoming the foundation for his voter contacts for years.

By 2012, Obama’s digital targeting operation blanketed the country, identifying and turning out voters in battleground states like Ohio.

Mitt Romney was far behind.

“Marrying grassroots politics with technology and analytics, they successfully contacted, persuaded and turned out their margin of victory,” the Republican party’s own post-election study found. “There are many lessons to be learned from their efforts.”

Suhn, who works with Republicans, says the party is working hard to fix the problem. “Everybody is catching up,” he said.

That could include state-level Democrats, who’ve often grumbled that Obama’s campaign refused to share its digital secrets. The national party is now considering a major data share, Sharp said.

But the move to digitize voter contacts isn’t driven entirely by partisan politics and isn’t limited to deep data sets and microtargeting.

Even low-visibility, nonpartisan races and issue campaigns can use digital tools. They’re easy, effective — and cheap.

Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are free. So are Instragram, LinkedIn, and whatever other social media site pops up this afternoon.

Websites can be produced and put online for a fraction of the cost of a slick video or 30-second TV commercial.

“You can find your facts, and you can find your Q and A, and you can find your opinion online,” said Pat O’Neill, a Kansas City campaign veteran who advised a winning candidate in the recent mayoral election in Independence.

Indeed, the use of low-cost digital tools, plus big-data and microtargeting techniques, mirror the revolution in big league baseball outlined in the book “Moneyball.” As with the Oakland A’s baseball team, the goal is now to firmly identify voter “bargains” cheaply instead of wasting campaign funds on high-cost, low-efficiency mass media.

“The cost of yard signs has doubled,” Sharp said. “Have you seen the cost of postage? … Every dollar has to stretch farther.”

Big data is even affecting political TV commercials.

“You can actually run one ad to a TV in a home, and in the very next home you run a different ad — based on what their buying habits are like,” Roe said.

 


 

Not everyone thinks the trend is healthy for democracy.

Low-cost, high-impact voter outreach efforts can help underfunded candidates and neutralize the effect of high-dollar donors. That means the digital revolution could help level the political playing field for thousands of candidates and campaigns.

At the same time, though, the proliferation of communications outlets might make it impossible for voters to thoroughly scrutinize political messaging. A candidate can support lower taxes in an ad aimed at one house and more spending in an ad next door.

“It does fly under the radar,” Suhn said. “You can use that for good and for bad.”

Political reporters and ad-check groups are increasingly worried. Fact-checking TV ads and speeches are one thing, but looking at every tweet and Facebook post isn’t practical, let alone examining what a candidate says one voter at a time.

“It’s going to be a challenge for us,” said Eugene Kiely, director ofFactCheck.org. “The strategy is going to remain the same, which is try to crowdsource, get our readers to try to get this material to us.”

A candidate’s opponents will find it harder to respond to statements as well.

“There’s no way to follow it or track it,” Roe said. “It’s hard to do a truth watch on an ad targeted to a select group of people that you never see.”

Digital targeting can also lead to circular political messaging: like-minded activists talking to each other, eliminating the undecided or independent voter from the process and making compromise even more difficult.

“They’re not getting a rounded view anymore,” Sharp said. “They’re only getting the side they want to hear.”

Candidate Kultala sees the same phenomenon.

“The things you like on Facebook or the things that you follow on Twitter are things that you support or agree with,” she said.

 


 

The digital explosion won’t mean an end to negative ads on your television this fall, or blurry postcards in your mailbox. Traditional media will still consume more than half of all campaign budgets this fall, experts predict.

“We must evolve in order to keep up with the younger mindsets,” O’Neill said. “But if you forsake traditional media, you do so at your own peril.”

Indeed, much of the digital revolution is aimed at younger voters, not the entire electorate. Older voters still rely on traditional cues — newspaper and television reporting, commercials and other mass messaging techniques.

Eventually, though, today’s grainy 30-second TV ad may seem quaint.

“For so many years, we’ve just blanketed districts with mail, and hope the name sticks in their head,” Sharp said. “But that doesn’t hit people where they live. You’ve got to target the issues that get them to the polls.”

 

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