Technology

It Takes Tech to Elect a President


Many candidates simply ask supporters for money and a vote. Obama uses social media tools to ask for even more

Technology and an appreciation of how to use it have always been important to political campaigns. Franklin Delano Roosevelt used radio to get his message across effectively to voters. Lyndon Johnson rode a helicopter to get him around Texas in his famous race for the Senate. John F. Kennedy understood the power of television better than Richard Nixon during the race for the Presidency in 1960. And Republican operatives in the 1970s built direct mail into a fund-raising behemoth that powered party gains for 20 years.

The current generation of Presidential candidates—and their advisers, such as James Carville, Karl Rove, and David Axelrod—will likely go down in history as even more innovative in their ability to use technology to an advantage.

The 1992 Clinton campaign understood advertising via cable television. Clinton's advisers realized that instead of expensive commercials on the networks, they could target a cable ad buy right down to a Zip Code. They built an extremely sophisticated procurement system to buy ads with the greatest impact. This was consequential: Clinton is the only two-term U.S. President who never received a majority of the vote, and one could argue that instrumental to his victory was his campaign's understanding of technology.

Today, all candidates for high political office follow the Clinton cable TV playbook.

Bush Microtargeting

In 2004, tech use by George W. Bush's campaign defined his reelection. Bush's advisers, including Rove, invested in better ways to reach voters in heavily Democratic areas. Precincts in inner cities and certain suburbs have traditionally been 70% to 80% pro-Democrat; Republican candidates wouldn't even campaign there. But the Bush campaign honed microtargeting to reach people who voted infrequently and who might be open to their message.

The Bush campaign assembled information on millions of voters in swing states and bombarded those people with messages they wanted to hear. The campaign targeted people who vote often and are registered Democrats, but whom the Bush team thought it had a chance of persuading.

According to Adrian Gray, the National Voter Contact Chairman for Bush/Cheney 2004, the campaign was especially effective in targeting African American voters in Ohio. Nationally, 8% of African Americans voted for Bush, but in Ohio he received 16% of the African American vote. The Bush campaign also focused on New Mexico, a state Bush lost in 2000 by 366 votes, and microtargeted Hispanics. Result: The white vote for Bush fell 2% in 2004, but his Hispanic vote increased 12%—enough to put him over the top in the state.

Tipping the Balance

This microtargeting strategy was the difference in the election. Bush certainly would have lost without such successful targeting. Essentially, Karl Rove took a page from the Oakland A's highly successful general manager, Billy Beane (the key subject of the best seller Moneyball), and followed the data rather than simply gut instinct.

Now, just one election cycle later, most major candidates from both parties have used sophisticated microtargeting. As it happens, we at Rapleaf help many candidates, organizations, and unions—including some involved in the 2008 election—analyze voters better to engage and activate supporters.

This Presidential cycle has already seen a highly improbable upset for the Democratic nomination. Barack Obama beat his (initially) better financed and more entrenched opponent, Hilary Clinton, at least in part by deploying better technology. Obama's campaign strategist, Axelrod, has built a system from the ground up that does something quite simple: It asks people for their help.

The Third "Ask"

In politics, supporters traditionally get two "asks" from candidates: one for money, and one for a vote. That's it. That means most of the campaign work is done by a few paid staffers. Not a very participatory democracy.

The Obama campaign has turned this notion on its head and built a community involvement strategy. Axelrod and his team realized that supporters of a political candidate are passionate and want to help. And while most have full-time jobs and families, and can't spend weekends knocking on doors, they all have five minutes to spare to help out. The Obama campaign has brilliantly taken advantage of this by actually asking people for help. They're letting a large number of people do a small amount of work each.

So if you go to an Obama rally (or just sign up on his Web site), you might be asked to call three voters in a swing state. Or if they know you are a member of Digg (the popular site that lets users vote on articles of interest), Obama's people may ask you to Digg an article that is favorable to Obama or critical of his opponent. Or they might ask you to put a bumper sticker on your MySpace (NWS) page.

In 2012, all major candidates will be leveraging their supporters more effectively. But for now, Obama's campaign has the technology advantage.

See BusinessWeek.com's slide show for more on tech-savvy Presidential candidates.

Hoffman is chief executive of Rapleaf

Auren Hoffman is CEO of Rapleaf, a company that collects and analyzes publicly available people data from the Internet.

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