The 2008 and 2012 US presidential elections heralded a new era of using technology to activate voters, donors and volunteers.
Part of technology’s role in this success story was data: Campaigners were able to collect more data than ever before, update data more frequently than ever, and strategize on how to use data in new ways. Data acquisition and management had improved greatly since past elections, and drew from voter registration records, consumer data warehouses, and past campaign contacts. Campaigners could poll voters and test campaign messages faster, cheaper and with greater ease. And savvy analysts used complex statistical models to accurately predict voter preferences and even election outcomes. As Sasha Issenberg wrote in 2012, “a new political currency [sic] predicted the behavior of individual humans. The campaign didn’t just know who you were; it knew exactly how it could turn you into the type of person it wanted you to be.”
Technology also enabled fun and meaningful engagement for volunteers, often replicating the social media experience. MyBarackObama.com enabled a personalized campaigning experience, and its available digital tools let regular people easily plug into volunteer activities that would help the campaign, like door-to-door canvassing or calling voters. Computational management let dispersed teams thrive all over the country, thanks to technological-enabled benchmarking and reporting.
With success stories like this one, it’s easy to see why so many people believe technology is a panacea for civic and political engagement. But as someone who works on engagement via technology, I can tell you, this isn’t the case.
Sure, the Obama people overcame apathy by tapping into motivations and social networks and lowering barriers to certain forms of participation. But even they admitted that they often left certain people out, in favor of targeting the easy wins. And beyond this, the Obama campaign had a few key things that are hard for others to replicate.
- Money. The Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012 spent millions of dollars on data analysts, coders, and strategists, not to mention media buying and ads. Other public sector entities like governments and non-profits don’t have Obama’s bankroll to churn up interest or action. Causes like public education, racial equality and community development don’t draw the same kind of cash, and this don’t have the same resources at their disposal to develop sophisticated tools, hire talented analysts and strategists or purchase consumer information.
- Urgency. With the fate of the free nation hanging in the balance and a firm deadline looming in November, presidential campaigns benefit from a sense of urgency that motivates people to act now, rather than later. Ongoing causes may be just as important, but don’t have the psychological benefit of a heightened sense of urgency driving people to immediate action.
- Simplicity. Presidential elections involve, at most, a few clear choices. For or against. Him or her. This party or that one. Once the choice is made, all efforts can be channeled toward a simple, shared goal: win the election. Few causes—whether legislative initiatives or activism agendas—have this kind of simplicity. Disagreement pulls people apart. Complexity slows things down and causes discouragement. Information management removes representatives from their constituents.
While there are lessons to be gleaned from the Obama campaign’s get out the vote success, those lessons are not all universalizable. Public sector organizations should copy the campaign’s personalization of websites, activation of social networks, and focus on individual motivations. But they cannot be expected to run sophisticated big data operations on the limited resources available to them.