Is the Real Electronic Politics Taking Place Behind the Scenes?

Looking at coverage of the online political world, I sometimes wonder if we’re missing the point: blogs, YouTube and social media are fun and interesting, but are they winning elections?

Thinking about the Lieberman/Lamont primary, it seems clear that these new technologies can be useful for drawing attention and motivating supporters, but good old-fashioned local political organizing is what gets voters to the polls. Where electronic politics seems to be making a real difference is behind the scenes, in the decisions campaigns are making about which voters to contact and how to reach them.

Basically, it’s all about the databases, which the Republicans are masters of using. Particularly, they are terrific at cross-referencing voter databases with consumer marketing databases to find likely supporters in unlikely places and target them with finely-honed messages. In Ohio in 2004, different households on the same block often got completely different direct mail pieces and phone pitches, depending on what magazines a voter in the house subscribed to or what organizations he or she belonged to. The Dems did nothing comparable, as far as I’ve heard.

Things haven’t changed much since then, by the evidence. A couple of months ago, a colleague and I ended up in a bar conversation with a guy who’d just started as a programmer at the DNC and who was denigrating the Republicans for running their systems on Windows. Two weeks later, I read this piece in Salon about the race to succeed Duke Cunningham in California: seeing a deficit in absentee voters, “Republican activists “poured” into the district and searched a Republican Party database that could tell them everything about voters from their personal hobbies and professional interests to the brand of toothpaste they’re likely to use. The activists identified likely Bilbray supporters from the database, then set about dialing their numbers and knocking on their doors.”

The result: Republican absentee voters outnumbered Democrats by 10,000, a critical number in a special election. Linux may earn Dems geek cred, but it didn’t prevent their getting their asses handed to them on the organizing front. If progressives want to win, they (we) have to pay more attention to the nuts and bolts of microtargeting. Thinking like a business marketer rather than a blogger every now and then would be a good start.


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Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Thanks for this frank post! Its absolutely true that identifying our people and then giving them something worth doing is a fundamental precept of organizing (even if you are just trying to pass a bill and not getting a candidate elected), and we often fail on the identification front. I think many progressives, including some candidates, find this level of targeting creepy and somehow unethical, but then we are trying to win with our hands tied behind our backs.

    I noticed this week that MoveOn is now fundraising specifically to pay for microtargeting, and they seem to be reaching their fundraising goal. I hope as they move forward they give us all some feedback on their outcomes.

  • […] Perhaps the real magic in online politicking occurs behind the scenes. E.Politics tells us why: Where electronic politics seems to be making a real difference is behind the scenes, in the decisions campaigns are making about which voters to contact and how to reach them. […]

  • Maybe its not thinking like a business marketer, but thinking in terms of data and sharing of data. Small progressive grassroots groups can collect far more useful information about their constituencies that massive commercial databases. They just need the tools, the training and the support. And there needs to be a way to aggregate that data come election time.

    What if that data were avaliable during election time and maintained by the grassroots between elections? That is where open source tools like CiviCRM and CivicSpace (which includes CiviCRM) can be helpful. There is also a place for tools like Democracy In Action (DIA), as well as vendor tools.

    Use social media to mobilize, but collect the data and use the data. IMHO cocial media alone can’t win elections, but combined with a mature, grassroots-centric data strategy, it becomes quite powerful.