Big Data and Big Money

By Zephyr Teachout

The last ten years have witnessed two revolutions in political organizing: I will identify them as the big data transformation, and the big money transformation. The first is the revolution wrought by the internet and data mining: the use of the internet for organizing, fundraising, spreading news, and voter turn out. This is what is covered in what looks to be a fascinating book, Kleis Nielsen¹s Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns. The second is the revolution wrought by law, namely, the Supreme Court. In a series of cases culminating in Citizens United, the Supreme Court struck down several democratically passed laws designed to cabin the direct political influence of corporations.

I am particularly interested in observing the interaction between these two changes, both of which have implications for the institutions of campaigns.

The Big Data change gives relative power to two groups: those with access to and skills related to big data, and those with a facility with turning low level interest into some kind of engagement (be it organizing, donating, or sharing news). It appeared that the relatively calcified structure of American political campaign management was being internally shaken up by these new developments in 2004 and 2008. Donor-handlers and television advertising experts were still arguably the most important people in a campaign after the campaign manager, but data-geeks and organizing gurus grew in power inside campaigns.

The second change—the Big Money change—gives power to those who have a facility with identifying large donors and persuading them to give away their money. Moreover, the second change inevitably leads to a growth industry in political jobs, as there are many more potential employers—all corporations that might want to impact elections, for instance.

Both internet organizing and SuperPACS are in their infancy. These are early years still in the extensive use of data, and they are early years in the use of SuperPACS. While American Crossroads appears to be making inroads in online organizing—its Facebook page has over 35,000 “likes”—only slightly over 1,000 people follow American Crossroads on Twitter. The presence on Twitter and Facebook along with the relative lack of sophistication of the presence is telling.

Whatever direction SuperPACS go, there is no question that in future cycles they will attempt to play the role traditionally played by parties and candidates. One thing to watch is the application—and success or failure—of lessons learned by parties and campaigns by SuperPACS.  You might also expect to see something similar with many traditional nonprofit groups, but they will tend, I suspect, to continue to pursue primarily 501(c)3 money—meaning they cannot directly advocate for candidate elections—and they have much less money than the larger SuperPACS, that political experimentation, which is very costly and can easily fail, seems less likely.

Patronage politics as used by political parties is largely illegal, but there is nothing illegal about companies engaging in company-style political rewards and punishments. Therefore one thing I¹ll be interested to look for is whether over time the wedding of organizing and corporate money and political campaigns leads to a blending of politics and power in the corporate workplace. It seems unlikely in the short term, but fairly likely in the long term, or at least a possibility.

If Ground Wars investigates how “personalized political communication” is shaping campaigns and electoral outcomes, I would watch the next few years to see not just what is happening with personalized political communication, but who is doing it.

My own hunch is that it costs much more per action to organize when you are not also raising money from the group you are organizing. Some of it is temperamental and reflects different skills that are valued in different settings: good big dollar fundraisers (like Rove) are not necessarily good at mobilizing people. But with growing numbers of independents and growing numbers of people taking some political actions, non-party organizations like American Crossroads could end up taking a central role in personalized political communications.

It is too bad that we never got to see the impacts of the Big Data revolution truly play out without the recent intervention of Big Money. As I¹ve written previously the internet contains within it highly democratizing seeds, and anti-democratizing seeds. It enables both engagement and lateral communications between non-leaders, and it enables greater control by hierarchical message machines. So it has both democratizing and anti-democratizing implications. On the other hand, Big Money has only anti-democratizing implications, even when it is used for organizing.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Ground Wars and the 2012 Elections

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