Campaigns and Voters are Wired Like Never Before – Is that Good?


Campaigns and voters are now in constant communication. (Photo: Adrian Clark/flickr)

Fi2W reporter Aswini Anburajan wrote this piece for WNYC’s It’s A Free Country.

The HBO premier of Game Change,  a TV drama about the improbable selection of Sarah Palin for the 2008 Republican presidential ticket, portrays how far the electorate has come in allowing the web — social media, video, blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. — to influence our views.

In the show, a frustrated and angry Steve Schmidt, a key advisor to McCain in 2008 who made a strong push for selecting Palin for the Republican ticket, laments out loud that no presidential race has ever had to contend with YouTube and the ability of the voters to replay a candidate’s worst moments over and over again. While the twenty-four hour cable news cycle had meant stories could be replaced quickly, social media and online sharing meant the bad ones could live in virtual perpetuity.

Any control that campaigns had over messaging is lost as we, a collective audience, “like,” upload, and review the best and the worst of politics through YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. But just as the McCain-Palin ticket was jettisoned by millions of views of Palin’s botched interviews with Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric and parodies by Tina Fey, many candidates have benefited from the entwining of politics social media and new technologies.

A single concession speech doesn’t end without Newt Gingrich, and now Mitt Romney, asking supporters to go online to donate and volunteer.  The accessibility to candidate video clips and twitter feeds can make people feel they have a personal connection to politicians, and this may encourage them to donate cash. The New York Times reported that Cher recently gave to Elizabeth Warren’s senate campaign after watching her speeches on YouTube.

Fundraising has also moved to mobile phones. The Obama and Romney campaigns are using Square, the mobile payment device that can turn any phone into a credit card reader.

The huge potential of this device lies in the passion of the moment, where volunteers go around a room asking individuals to donate money right after the high of seeing their candidate speak at a large rally or a town hall. The Square device attaches to the top of the phone, and with one swipe a credit card is charged. Consumers simply sign on the screen of the app and enter their phone number or email address to receive a receipt. The entire process takes about two minutes.

IAFC spoke with the Obama campaign and learned that as of yet, they are not using Square at rallies, but any campaign staff member that wants one can get a Square device and the app, so that it easy for them to collect donations pledged by friends and family.

That move has a lot of power. Now volunteers can make a personal appeal and not fear an enthusiasm lag that may occur between the time the donor hears the call to donate and logs on online.

PEW’s Center for American Life reports that cable news is still the number one source of campaign news. But it’s not the source of discovery and activism for most voters.

New search algorithms apps and other forms of social media that introduce and connect voters to candidates has the South by Southwest conference buzzing, according to a piece published by Politico this week.

Start-ups are offering everything from an eHarmony-like way to find voters to a new tool that allows activists to expand and broaden their reach. PeopleRank, a new system by Google to rank users based on their social influence is a way that both corporations and politicians can find influences to seed their ideas through the web.

But who, if anyone, has true power in this digital world of politics? You might like to think it’s “people power,” but the scales appear to be tilted in favor of the campaigns. News organizations have embraced the use of Twitter, and many political reporters tweet online during major debates. Those tweets have allowed the campaigns to guess how a reporter will judge a debate and the communications team can modify their spin based on that pre-expressed sentiment, according to Politico Playbook Note by Mike Allen.

Hyper-targeting is also a key area of growth and potential influence over a voter. Politico quotes one analyst as saying that campaigns “have full psychological profiles of people, and it’s going to get worse in the next few years.”

Technology is shaping the narrative of the presidential race. The power to elect our next president lies with those who can move the needle gracefully and cunningly through digital mediums.

Game Change provides a humorous example of just how much times have changed, even in 2008. In the movie, Palin is distraught over her botched answers in major interviews, and has trouble refocusing on the debates and future interviews. Steve Schmidt, trying to comfort Palin, tells her, “You know Ronald Reagan said that pollution comes from trees?… “And he went on to be a great president.”

But how many people remember that fumble? I wonder what impact a viral video of Reagan would have had on his campaign?