In his recent book Ground Wars Rasmus Kleis Nielsen[i] offers an insightful look inside the workings of the Get-Out-the-Vote (GOTV) effort of Democratic candidates for US-congress during the campaign in 2008. This detailed account of the goals, methods and actual practices of GOTV efforts is in and of itself interesting but it also offers insights to a much deeper and more decisive question present day campaigners face. Namely, how do campaigns and candidates effectively reach their potential voters in an age of abundant media choices, fragmented audiences and information saturation? Personalized GOTV efforts, as described by Nielsen in his book, might offer a temporary answer. But an answer, as he will probably be the first to state, whose actual effectiveness over time, varying campaign contexts, and different countries has yet to be proven.
In its most basic form, GOTV holds the potential for political campaigns to cut out the middleman, the media, and to address potential voters directly, or as Nielsen puts it, to address potential voters “mediated by people rather than by traditional mass media”.[ii] It is easy to see why this is attractive to campaigners. They—more or less—reasonably hope that volunteers contacting potential voters might stay truer to the campaign’s message and talking points than journalists. Still, here I want to focus on another potential that GOTV might hold for campaigns: the potential to directly reach individuals in target demographics that hold special interest to the campaign.
Political campaigns in Western democracies face a similar challenge. Research tells campaigners that the individuals who are most likely to be influenced by campaign messages are not very interested in politics. As a consequence they do not follow politics in the news and are also not very likely to actively search for political information. In media environments that offer the audience little possibility to select content based on their interests this matters little. In a media environment with abundant content choices this matters a lot.[iii] So campaigners face the challenge to cut through the media content of interest to their potential voters and reach them with their message, their candidate and their talking points. GOTV and personalized contact to voters through volunteers might offer an interesting solution to this challenge. This depends on the ability of campaigners to correctly identify their potential voters. So it comes down to the quality of a campaign’s database and the quality of the models it employs to make sense of the data.
One of the key factors determining the success of any GOTV effort, that emerges in Nielsen’s account, is the ability of organizers on a local level to identify doors and telephone numbers that offer volunteers access to individuals that correspond to the campaign’s target demographics. This means local access to a database with information on potential voters through an easily useable interface. As Nielsen shows, the Democratic National Congress (DNC) had worked very hard between 2004 and 2008 to allow campaigners access to a centrally maintained database containing detailed voter information. This effort is also a key part of another excellent recent analysis of the inner workings of Democratic campaigns in 2004 and 2008 by Daniel Kreiss.[iv] Both Nielsen and Kreiss show how much effort, funds, long-term planning and development Democrats spend to provide their campaigners in 2008 with a database containing easily accessible, locally relevant voter information. This ongoing development process provides the base of the successful Democratic GOTV effort of 2008 and the ability of the Democrats to identify and communicate with potential voters who otherwise would probably have not been in contact with campaign information.[v]
Yet, this ability came at a cost. Kreiss puts a price tag on the early steps of the efforts by the DNC to develop this database. He puts just the cost of these early efforts at roughly $6 million.[vi] From an IT development perspective this is not an unreasonable price for a project of this size, but in the realm of political campaigns, this is a major investment. Especially if you look at campaign budgets outside of the USA. Jens Tenscher puts the campaign budgets of the two major German parties (CDU and SPD) for the federal election of 2009 at roughly 26,5 and respectively 29 Million EURO.[vii] To develop a database comparable to the DNC database would have cost the two biggest parties in Germany about a seventh of there total campaign budgets. This shows that already the development costs of an effective GOTV database prove prohibitive in an international context, never mind the requirements of data privacy laws, which in many Western democracies are much less liberal than those in the US.
So, is there a potential for parties outside the USA to use GOTV to circumvent the media selection habits of potential voters? Political consultants seem to think so. Blue State Digital, the firm instrumental in the development of the DNC database and in Barack Obama’s online efforts during the 2008 presidential campaign, consults extensively with international clients. But while they can undoubtedly offer tools and expertise with regard to access to data and the use of data for GOTV, the success of their tools and methods depends on the quality of preexisting databases. In Germany various firms offer datasets to political parties, which they claim help campaigns in identifying potential voters. These datasets and the models running on them – identifying strong supporters, moderate supporters, likely supporters and such—remain essentially closed boxes to the campaigns using them. As of now the quality of their results remains a question of faith. Hardly a comforting state of affairs for campaigners.
The success of GOTV is highly dependent on the quality of the data and models that provide campaigns with potential voters. Both data and models come at a cost. As of now it has to be seen if campaigns outside the USA are able and willing to spend the necessary sums to develop voter databases on their own or if third-party developers come up with solutions that allow for a sensibly transparent evaluation of the quality of their results. Failing this, international campaigns will have to rely on the power of their candidates and their message to gain the attention of potential voters.
[i] Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis. 2012. Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
[ii] Nielsen 2012, 175
[iii] Prior, Markus. 2007. Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
[iv] Kreiss, Daniel. 2012. Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
[v] Still, it should to be mentioned that it remains notoriously difficult to quantify the exact impact the GOTV effort contributed to the vote share of Democratic candidates.
[vi] Kreiss 2012, 108.
[vii] Tenscher, Jens. 2011. “Defizitär – und trotzdem professionell? Die Parteienkampagnen im Vergleich.” In Superwahljahr 2009: Vergleichende Analysen aus Anlass der Wahlen zum Deutschen Bundestag und zum Europäischen Parlament, Hrsg. Jens Tenscher. Wiesbaden, DE: VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, 75.