American Voter 2012: Personalizing the Mass Campaign

The American Voter 2012:  

Spotlight on How We Vote and Why


A 10-article series by Lawrence E. McCullough on how our voting behavior is analyzed and influenced in the Age of PAC and Tweet.

* Originally Published in the Hall Institute of Public Policy-NJ weekly newsletter at


Column 2:  Personalizing the Mass Campaign

U.S. POLITICAL CANDIDATES eager to establish personal connection with voters no longer rely on pancake breakfasts and baby-kissing photo ops.

They employ state-of-the-art tech tools to transform generic campaign outreach into individualized, highly interactive relationships between candidate and voter.

Political consultant and Roosevelt Institute fellow Matt Stoller described the new approach in an article published in The Nation. “This is simply a different landscape for politics. One that turns politics from the top-down media focus of a James Carville-esque ‘War Room’ to one that relies more on word of mouth, like a church or a labor union.” [1]

Today’s voter outreach operations are planned and conducted by specialists sporting labels like Predictive Modeler, Data Mining Expert and Constituent Relations Manager embedded in teams of analysts and organizers with training in statistics, mathematics and software development. No back-slapping ward heelers need apply.

The intensified emphasis on personalized outreach follows a simple maxim:  the greater degree to which a campaign can personally engage its supporters, the more it can ask from them in terms of time, money and advocacy.

With regard to engaging voters, a campaign has three chief action priorities:

1)    Recruiting – establishing a connection with the voter

2)    Messaging  – delivering campaign themes and information to the voter

3)    Mobilizing  –  getting the voter to volunteer and donate during the campaign and, on election day, vote for the candidate

Though various targeted voter outreach strategies had been utilized by the 2004 Bush and Kerry campaigns, Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential run set the gold standard for its innovative applications of digital technology.

Via the Internet, he raised $750 million in donations and used social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace to identify and communicate with supporters around the country. Through, the campaign was able to synchronize virtual gatherings that brought voters from across the nation into real-time contact — a campaign rally in a living room. 

Breaking news bulletins — announcing Senator Joe Biden as running mate, for example – were released by text message, providing an additional sense of inclusion among campaign supporters and heightening coverage by mainstream media.

Decidedly outmaneuvered in the realm of voter tech savvy in 2008, the GOP is laboring diligently this election to match the Democrats tweet for tweet. The most recent Federal Election Commission report reveals the Romney campaign spent nearly $1 million on digital consulting in April, 2012, compared to approximately $300,000 by the Obama campaign. [2]

In this year’s voter persuasion wars, the smartphone will be a critical front. The weapons of choice will be mobile ads and specially-designed apps incorporating advanced geo-targeting techniques.

During the 2010 mid-term elections, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 26% of U.S. voters reported receiving campaign messages on their mobile phones. In the current election cycle, the ability to reach U.S. voters in their most personal daily work and leisure space has expanded, with smartphones and other mobile communication devices now outnumbering desktop computers.How personal can these personalized voter messages get?

Attendees strolling through the 2010 Minnesota State Fair may have been surprised to receive a video ad message on their smartphone from Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann’s campaign regarding her opponent’s position on proposed food taxes. “I know it’s State Fair time and you don’t want to hear about politics,” Bachmann’s message declared. “But while you’re at the fair, you should know that Tarryl Clark here voted to raise taxes on your corn dog and your deep-fried bacon and your beer.” [3]

Now, that’s personal. And, perhaps, verging ever so slightly toward cyberstalking.

In 2012, technology for location- and time-specific outreach has become even more refined; campaigns are using smartphones to orchestrate fundraising, field organization and media coverage, in tandem with social media entities such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Foursquare, Tumblr and Posterous that allow workers to disseminate information to voters round the clock from any location — even as voters are standing in line to cast a ballot on Election Day.

Visitors to the site will find this cheery welcome:

“We’d like this Tumblr to be a huge collaborative storytelling effort — a place for people across the country to share what’s going on in our respective corners of it and how we’re getting involved in this campaign to keep making it better. You can send us a few paragraphs about how your latest phonebanking gig went or why you’re in for 2012. Share the latest chart you saw that made you go ‘woah’. Ask a question. Upload a photo of 2012 t-shirts or signs you see out in the wild. Pass along jokes, particularly if they’re funny. And if you’re among the Tumbl-inclined, send us posts you’ve published on your own Tumblr that we should look at re-blogging.”

Giving volunteers and supporters this level of expressive latitude is becoming the new norm in American voter outreach. It’s “wisdom-of-crowds” theory applied to ground-level political discourse, which achieves greater impact as a series of individual conversations instead of static stump speeches or one-way robocalls.

Behind the scenes, the flow of direct-to-voter electronic material is shaped and guided by a foundational strata of sophisticated software programs that glean useful information from mountains of raw data.

The engine powering the Obama campaign is NationalField, a private social network for business developed by a Washington, D.C. firm of the same name.
“NationalField connects all levels of staff to the information they are gathering as they work on tasks like signing up volunteers, knocking on doors, identifying likely voters and dealing with problems,” writes Micah Sifry, editorial director of Personal Democracy Media.

“Managers can set goals for field organizers – number of calls made, number of doors knocked – and see, in real time, how people are doing against all kinds of metrics.”

Circulating those metrics through the live campaign network is accomplished by a new generation of data-crunching, geo-targeting mobile apps like Campaign Manager Dashboard that boasts access to information on 100 million registered voters across the U.S. 

Created by New York City developer 5ivepoints, Campaign Manager Dashboard ushers in what one of its executives calls “the new age of affordable and effective campaign management.”

With pricing for local campaigns starting at $50 a month, Campaign Manager Dashboard is a tool designed for very specific voter outreach. “If a campaign wants to target female Democrats who love guns, that’s a query that can be generated by a campaign worker or embedded in the application,” says 5ivepoint’s director of analytics, Daniel Weitzenfeld.

Some observers believe a growing reliance on Big Data will play a significant role in shaping day-to-day strategy decisions during the 2012 elections. “The promise and beauty of it is that it’s highly measurable,” notes Adam Berke, president of the digital retargeting company AdRoll. “It’s easy to see what’s resonating and not resonating with voters.”

But will the relentless digital knock-knock of tweets, tumblrs and dashboards overwhelm voters with an excess of information causing them to lose sight of core issues? Candidates will still rely on the traditional television safety net this fall, unleashing a steady stream of campaign spots from now through Election Day. 

Over the last half century, television has been the primary medium for disseminating political information to the largest numbers of the American electorate, and campaigns spend an estimated 80% of their budget on television ads geared to reach a mass audience with a mass message.

But television, like other McLuhanesque “cool media” offering little interactive opportunity, is undeniably yielding ground to the “hot media” platforms that invite recipients to talk back and spread the message wherever they may be – hot, responsive, user-friendly media most voters have within reach every waking (and sleeping) hour of the day.

In fact, don’t be surprised if in the not-too-faroff future you encounter a campaign bumper sticker that shouts out a hearty hello in your native dialect, beams on a 3-D video spot and invites you to click in a donation from your bank account.

Whether or not you like the candidate, that should still make you go ‘woah’.

Next Report How Will the Voter ID Controversy Impact the 2012 Elections?

[1]  “Dems Get New Tools, New Talent” by Matt Stoller. The Nation, Feb. 11, 2008.
[2]  “Campaigns Dig through Online Data to Target Voters” by Beth Fouhy. Associated Press, May 28, 2012.
[3]  “State Fair Cries Foul Over Bachmann Ad” by Bernie Becker. Aug. 31, 2010.