POSTED ON MAY 8, 2013:
Technology and Democracy
New ground to plow in the digital age, part 1
Political campaigns are in the midst of a great transformation, and I'm not just talking simply about campaigns for national or statewide office. The huge changes in the way that candidates connect with voters are also affecting local races. And these seismic changes are very much in play in Tulsa's 2013 mayoral campaign -- especially since we are on a short-fuse cycle like nothing that we've seen before.
In case you've missed it, there is a real chance that we may have a new mayor, or a reelected mayor, in a few short weeks as the first wave of our new "all party" primary takes place on June 11. And while I'm sure you've read about it elsewhere, or heard about it on local radio or TV, any candidate who can secure 50 percent of the vote plus one vote becomes mayor-elect on the spot.
One could argue that the family techniques now in play in political campaigns have simply been borrowed from contemporary market research, new product development, and from advanced consumer testing, plus advanced computing and emerging "big data" stuff from the biz world. But there are two critical, very specific items that have ignited a fevered rework in the way major campaigns at every level are conducted. Interestingly, some keen political observers believed that "under usage" of these techniques was very much at play in Mitt Romney's loss to Barack Obama in November.
Some time ago, I wrote a little about the work of data analyst Sasha Issenberg. His 2011 book The Victory Lab looked at Texas Governor Rick Perry's 2006 reelection campaign.
The book shined a light on Perry strategist Dave Carney's embedding of four "political scientists" into the campaign and what their experiments and data analysis revealed.
"Over the course of that year, the eggheads, as they were known within the campaign, ran experiments testing the effectiveness of all the things that political consultants do reflexively and we take for granted: candidate appearances, TV ads, robocalls, direct mail," Issenberg wrote. "The findings from those 2006 tests dramatically changed how (Perry's managers) prioritized the candidate's time and the campaign's money when Perry sought re-election again in 2010."
Barack Obama's 2008 run, especially his 2012 reelection campaign, made outsized use of these techniques and added very aggressive use of social networks -- Facebook, Twitter and carefully-crafted email. Obama and crew employed these avenues, plus a radically new voter database: this hot data soup helped them mobilize and identify supporters in an amazingly precise and efficient way.
A lot of the changes in campaign tech go under the arena of "micro-targeting" -- not just identifying the precinct (a little political unit where voters cast ballots, and there are around 200 in the city) but knowing where voters are in terms of what they read, what they watch on regular and cable television, where they shop, what kind of music they consume, and even what they drive.
One of the perennial technologies that fuels campaigning is scientific polling. And while I have no certain knowledge of what Kathy Taylor, Bill Christiansen, or Dewey Bartlett are doing with polling work in this election cycle -- I do have savvy friends and politico buddies who have been called by survey operatives working for one or more of the campaigns. In the popular press and in our general culture, people regard polling as sort of goofy: I heard people say during the last presidential campaign that you could "find" national and regional polls to support whatever position or candidate you wanted. But reality, dear reader, is very, very different. I know from my direct experience in a mayoral race I helped run six years ago and some other consulting work that extremely well-crafted polling work can get a candidate team day-to-day insight into how they're doing, who they're doing well with, what parties are buying their message -- in ways that would astonish many readers.
In 2006, I was the issues/polling chief for former State Representative Don McCorkell's bid for the Democratic nomination for Tulsa mayor. This contest pitted him against Taylor, then making her first bid for elective office. From our polling work, we knew, early on in the campaign, that Taylor had what looked like a stranglehold on women voters -- older women voters, middle-aged women voters, and younger woman professionals and pink collar female workers -- almost everywhere in town. Interestingly enough, we also knew that the Taylor folks understood this as well. They published some of their polling results on a public website for anyone who was interested. And because they were ahead in the race, for most of the campaign, they happily highlighted their general poll results. But the thing that readers need to understand is that the numbers -- both McCorkell's and Taylor's -- were almost exactly the same in any given week during the course of the campaign.
The Perry researchers (and some earlier academic field work) established that the most effective campaign tactics included -- in this order -- telephone calls, customized mail, and personal, on-the-ground contact with voters. Both parties in the 2006 mayoral democratic primary campaigns enlisted volunteers and paid crews to go from one designated neighbor to another with the candidate's message, printed materials, and details on voting dates and other essentials. This canvassing is much more powerful than other media, like 30-second radio and television spots. This was one of the most powerful lessons from the Perry work that Issenberg highlights.
Again, I have no certain knowledge of what any of the campaigns are doing except from my own personal experience and the informal reports I get from friends and political buddies. What is very evident so far is the savvy and extensive use of social media that the Taylor people are making. I'll go up on websites that I use with some frequency -- for news, entertainment, for books and music and have been barraged by spot and banner ad placements originated by the Taylor organization. This is the first time I've witnessed this in a local campaign. And many of the ad placements are carefully designed to make optimal use of the devices that I'm employing--in my case a laptop, an iPad, an iPhone, and a Kindle Fire. And while it's easy to say that what may, in the end, be a pretty significant funding differential between the Taylor, Christiansen and Bartlett campaigns is the driver here, I have to say that I've seen no use of social media so far on the part of the Christiansen or the Bartlett campaigns.
In a couple of weeks, I'll talk to some national political pros about our mayoral campaign and reflect on some related matters.
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