Image: iStockphoto/anton_novik

Technology decisions matter in the 2016 US presidential campaign. Tech has always played an important role in politics—from highly-targeted direct mail to robocalls to databases for door-knockers—but the stakes are high this year because the tech is getting even better and it’s taking over more and more aspects of the game.

Running a campaign is often compared to running a small business. The stakes are high and the margin of error is slim. In a modern political campaign, understanding technology translates into being able to better understand people. Making the right decisions about how best to use technology has big consequences. Four significant technologies—big data, the cloud, social media, and mobile—will significantly influence this year’s election cycle. Let’s break down how and why.

Data and the cloud

Data science is the hot tech trend of the 2016 campaign. Every viable campaign employs a team of data scientists to optimize messaging, raise funds, and get out the vote (GOTV). Early in the campaign, data teams are typically internal, small, tight units.

Several major presidential campaigns rely on Amazon Web Services to deploy a number of cloud-based technologies. To activate voters, primary campaigns in particular are ground battles that rely on fast-moving, small teams. Google Apps and Microsoft Office 365 cloud apps are widely-used by local campaigns, donor and supporter organizations, and canvassing teams.

During the 2012 campaign the Mitt Romney and Barack Obama teams both competed to gather, interpret, and execute a data strategy. There is “an ongoing, still unsettled battle between the two parties for analytical supremacy,” wrote Sasha Issenberg, in his book The Victory Lab, “a fight that [George W.] Bush data analyst Alex Gage likens to an ‘information arms race.’ A new era of statistical accountability has been introduced to a trade governed largely by anecdote and lore.”

Obama won the digital battle in 2012 in part by eschewing campaign conventional wisdom, and instead applied data science. The team built by 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina used big data successfully by hyper-targeting and mobilizing voters all over the country, and specifically in Ohio’s winner-take-all electoral contest.



Image: Snapchat/Hillary Clinton campaign

The 2016 Clinton campaign’s robust digital operation closely resembles a media production shop—in contrast to her traditional campaign in 2008, which has been blamed at least partly for her loss. Clinton’s 2016 messaging and media content are highly informed by data and analytics. Externally, the Clinton campaign is supplemented by the Eric Schmidt-funded digital firm, The Groundwork. Specifics about The Groundwork’s strategy are sparse, though data science is no doubt at center the of their work.

The 2016 campaign will exploit data at unprecedented scale. ZDNet’s David Gewirtz noted, “what you buy, what you read, what you share online, who you associate with, what your mood is, where you work, what you do, what your health situation is, where you’ve donated, what clothing styles you like, what car models you buy, your favorite Cola brand, your favorite phone brand — all of that information is available to those with the budget to buy it and the algorithms to aggregate and sift through it. This is where big data is changing the face of American election politics.”

The GOP in general, said one high-level Republican operative who did not want to speak on the record, is scrambling to catch-up with the Democrats’ data machine. Smart campaigns, said the operative, are building “personality-based micro-targeting” models that will assist in fundraising and GOTV campaigns. Technologies and strategies are being developed at the national level, as well as within individual campaigns, then deployed in local campaign offices.




Image: Ted Cruz campaign mobile application

Mobile devices will be the source of data aggregation used by campaigns. They can also be used to target and communicate with voters directly. Voice meeting services like Tele-Town Hall have quietly become more and more important to campaigns and policy-makers alike. Tele-Town Hall allows candidates to hold large town hall-style meetings with constituents. Some calls exceed 500 people, and allow voters to directly interact by asking questions and speaking directly with candidates, and providing instant touch-tone feedback on policy issues.

Applications, particularly iOS apps, said a spokesperson for the Ted Cruz campaign, are crucial in terms of activating potential voters. iOS is easy for small teams to build cost-effective applications that reach a somewhat-affluent demographic, said the Republican operative.

The Cruz campaign uses Highland Creative Company to customize a mobile application that gamifies user support. The app rewards users with points and achievements for providing access to personal information, address book contacts, attending events, and canvassing—door knocking—for the candidate.

Highland Creative Company created a suite of apps called uCampaign that help local candidates, operatives, and grassroots organizations run campaigns and organize supporters.

Social media

Social media has been an easy tool for campaigns to embrace. Like small businesses, most campaigns run on tight budgets, and social media is a low-cost method of keeping candidates and issues top of mind. Local and regional campaign offices use social media to communicate with, mobilize, and learn about issues from voters.

The social web is often credited as instrumental to the success of President Obama’s 2008 campaign. In 2008, the social web matured as the smartphone went mainstream. The first Obama campaign made unprecedented use of Twitter and other budding social platforms to build immense buzz by communicating with—not at—the public, influencers, and early adopters.

His website was run by Facebook-alum-turned-New Republic editor Chris Hughes, and helped to raise funds from grassroots supporters, and to help organize volunteers and staffers.

Today, social media is mainstream and all campaigns have teams that staff public Twitter accounts and Facebook pages. But effective social media campaigns are rooted in data. This fall, the Christie campaign experienced a resurgence in the polls after the viral success of an emotional video depicting the Governor as sensitive to victims of addiction.

Republican candidate Ben Carson has achieved great success with social media. His campaign is still winning the Facebook primary, with nearly 5 million followers. Donald Trump lags behind Carson on Facebook with 4.8 million followers, and Ted Cruz sits at 1.6 million followers.

Democratic hopeful Bernie Sanders has channeled social media exuberance to sustained top of mind awareness. The hashtag #FeelTheBern has been tweeted several hundred thousand times, and has appeared as a top Twitter trend consistently since June 2015.

The 2016 Clinton campaign has also emerged as a digital powerhouse. Clinton’s policy messaging, timing, and content are crafted by in-house digital experts who communicate directly with millennial voters using a suite of social applications, including Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and Spotify.

The digital arms race

As the 2016 race heats up, so too will the digital arms race. Each campaign will engage in tactical battles over the hearts and minds of voters. Unlike campaigns of previous eras, technology is cheap and ubiquitous. Expect every campaign to employ staff hackers and expensive digital firms. The winning edge will go to the team that best masters and manages technology.

This story is part of TechRepublic’s on-going Election Tech 2016 series. This non-partisan coverage will highlight the ways tech is shaping the election and shine the light on the players, the technologies, the vendors, and the strategies that are winning the game behind the scenes.

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Election Tech 2016: The 4 technologies that will decide the next US president