Data Wizardry, An Ocean of Cash, and “Mundane” Revolutions: The 2012 Election and the Internet

By David Karpf

2012 is the year when the Internet moves firmly into the background for political campaigns.

In the 2000 election, the web was a novelty.  Candidate McCain attracted headlines through his post-New Hampshire online fundraising, but otherwise the medium was mostly used for reinforcement, not persuasion.

In the 2004 election, Howard Dean demonstrated the power of the new medium for partisan mobilization.  Dean supporters used the web to donate, to volunteer online, and to MeetUp offline.  Heavy media attention followed, even if primary victories did not.  

As Daniel Kreiss highlights in his new book, Taking Our Country Back, alumni of the Dean campaign then spent four years constructing an infrastructure for networked politics.  They launched consulting businesses like Blue State Digital and training organizations New Organizing Institute.  These same Dean partisans became key practitioners in Obama’s field and new media operation.  While no one would argue that the Internet alone caused Obama’s victory, it is reasonable to claim that the new media environment was a key necessary condition.

The Internet circa 2008 attracted a lot of public attention.  It seemed that political campaigning was different, and we looked to the new digital tools to understand why.  In general, we found it to be particularly good at three things: (1) supporting collective action among participatory communities, (2) microtargeting individual voters, and (3) “backend streamlining,” or what Rasmus Kleis Nielsen has termed “mundane mobilization tools.”

Set aside all the hubbub surrounding YouTube clips and twitter debates, smartphone applications and Facebook “likes,” and we’re left with roughly these same three categories today.  But events in the intervening four years have changed their character—strengthening some while weakening others.  As a result, the medium has become less remarkable but more essential.

Let’s begin with the first, the online communities.  This was the source of great hope in recent years.  Networks of small-dollar donors, organizing through “netroots” organizations like MoveOn.org and DailyKos.com, were able to pool their resources and contribute significant sums to their preferred candidates.  After Michele Bachmann had her neo-McCarthyite moment on Hardball in 2008, the progressive netroots  raised $810,000 for her opponent in 48 hours.   In doing so, they nearly equaled his fundraising total from the previous year.  Resource mobilization on this scale has a tangible effect on election outcomes.  The Internet, it appeared, was finally allowing large communities of small donors to compete for influence with the small networks of large-dollar “bundlers.”

Then Citizens United happened.

Today, those same networks of small donors can still raise six-figure sums for their preferred candidates.  This is a boon to popular partisan candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Raul Grijalva.  But $810,000 is a pittance when individual billionaires are free to commit $100,000,000 to affect the outcome of a race.  Whatever relative advantages were gained from the affordances of the new media environment have now been washed out through judicial policy decree.

The second trend is more potent, but lurks in the background.  The fields of data mining and predictive modeling allow political campaigns to engage in increasingly sophisticated voter targeting efforts.  They also support a burgeoning field of experimental research, with rigorous social scientists fine-tuning voter persuasion and mobilization techniques (for more, read Sasha Isenberg’s forthcoming book, The Victory Lab).

In Ground Wars, Nielsen offers a detailed history of voter databases by the Republican and Democratic Parties.  This is big business.  The party with the better voter file and better model can engage in stronger voter education drives and more efficient Get Out The Vote efforts.  As Phil Howard wrote in 2006, these new practices can also subtly disenfranchise voters through “political redlining.”  Neighbors can receive entirely different information (or disinformation!) from the campaigns.

But Big Data in political campaigns also faces a “Garbage In, Garbage Out” problem.  We have been told for over a decade that sophisticated data mining has enabled a revolution in microtargeting.  These stories always have the glossy shine of a marketing department, though.  Individual companies pitch their products as wizardry, promising much while guarding their proprietary secrets.   In chapter 5 of his book (“targeting voters through personal contacts”), Nielsen indicates that much of this digital wizardry is more akin to digital alchemy.  Massive databases rely on the inputs of armies of volunteers and poorly-paid staff, overworked and frantic as they count down toward election day. Campaigns must balance potential advances through predictive modeling against potential losses through overfitting their data, failing to reach potential voters who didn’t happen to match a profile.   As Nielsen puts it in chapter 6, campaigning today is essentially still “fighting the same ground war.”

That brings us to the third trend, itself the primary topic in Nielsen’s book.  The “Ground War” is fought between two massive campaign assemblages.  The Internet is not a central object of field campaigning.  Instead, it provides an increasingly important context for these field operations.  Field campaigning is (of course) technologically mediated.  We rely on the now-unremarkable technologies of vehicles and telephones, electricity and indoor plumbing every day.  It is only when one of these technologies breaks that they become remarkable.  In the same way, Nielsen highlights for us that the Internet has produced a series of mundane revolutions for field campaigners.

The work of cutting turf for field canvassers that once took days, now takes minutes.   The work of reporting results up and down the campaign infrastructure now takes a handful of conference calls, rather than a seemingly infinite number of conference calls.

These advances may not seem so revolutionary to the outside observer.  But they look refreshingly different to the campaigners who now devote 10 minutes rather than 10 hours to licking envelopes.  The work of political campaigning is much the same as it ever was.  But the technological context of that work is quietly changing.

The Internet itself was a central part of the 2008 election narrative.  Obama’s combination of new media and field operations was vital to his Democratic primary victory, and was the object of frequent inquiry.  “Netroots” organizations allowed communities of small donors to compete with wealthy bundlers.   The largest field mobilization in a century featured a healthy dose of online connectivity.

Looking ahead to the 2012 election, what is most remarkable about the Internet’s role is how unremarkable it has now become.  When we look past the hype surrounding the latest social media fascinations, we are left with quiet innovations in voter targeting, quiet experiments around voter persuasion and mobilization, and field organizing that relies on the internet only to the extent that it has become context for our everyday lives.

These may be revolutions of a sort, but they were hardly the ones we were expecting.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Ground Wars and the 2012 Elections

One response to “Data Wizardry, An Ocean of Cash, and “Mundane” Revolutions: The 2012 Election and the Internet

  1. Pingback: GOTV in International Campaigns? | Too Bad You Never Knew Ace Hanna

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