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Digital Political Candidates Driven by Technology

How the Web, social media and big data shape contemporary politics.

On New Year’s Eve 2010, Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker responded to a constituent on Twitter whose 65-year-old father needed help shoveling snow from his driveway. Booker’s tweet? “I will do it myself; where does he live?”

And do it himself he did, arriving some 20 minutes later with other volunteers, who were also rounded up through the social networking site.

Booker, who took office in 2006 following a landslide win and was re-elected in 2010, is a political Twitter phenomenon. He has more than 1 million followers, has posted more than 16,000 tweets, and is known for his dynamic use of social media and online technology, which assisted him in winning the mayoral seat. Booker may be the leading example of a well harnessed digital campaign and governance strategy in U.S. politics today, deftly using Web 2.0 tools to stay connected with the people of his city.

Most important, Booker says technology helps voters to get an up-close view of him as a person. “Social media creates that intimate window and gives voters a chance to really see your humanity and the substance of your spirit,” he said. “It creates a different kind of loyalty than with traditional engagement.”

Social media also allows candidates to build a longer-term relationship. “And that is so important,” Booker said. “It eliminates the old, ‘You just come around to talk to me at election time’ issue.” Instead, social media lets Booker engage with hundreds of people at a time and broadens his connection to people he can’t necessarily reach at a campaign or community event. “It changes conversations from private to social. If you don’t build up the tool, you really surrender to the space or come off as very robotic. It’s about creating authentic, dynamic feeds.”

And should Booker run for re-election, a significant part of the voting population already is following him, he said. “The best advice I can offer to candidates not already using social media and technology is this: Dive in now. Do not wait; start aggregating audiences. Once a campaign has started, time is lost. Build the power early. After you win the office, social media usage shouldn’t fall off. It should go up. Social media is about engagement.”

Technology has brought more authenticity to the political sphere, and today it plays a central role in campaigns. Peer-to-peer campaigning — involving emails, social media, micro-targeting, mobile and tablet applications, for instance — allows for a more genuine connection between a candidate and his or her constituency.

“Consider how television changed campaigning in 1964, direct mail in the ’70s, bar codes with absentee balloting in the ’90s, the Internet with fundraising in the mid-2000s or social in 2008. Each time, a forward-thinking campaign adopted the new technology to great success, leading to broader adoption in the subsequent cycle,” said David Binetti, CEO and co-founder of Votizen, a Web service that allows users to campaign with friends on social networks to elect candidates who share their values.

One in 600 people in the United States is elected to public office at some point in their life, said Joe Green, co-founder and president of NationBuilder — a community organizing system that blends the customer relationship management and content management systems as a synthesized website and people database. “The effect of technology on politics at the end of the day will be on local campaigns,” he predicts. Technology alone, however, is not the answer. It’s merely a tool, and like any tool, it must be used correctly to be effective. “You need the wherewithal to take advantage of the opportunities, messaging, strategy,” said Jonathan Karush, founder and president of Liberty Concepts, a provider of websites, software and online strategy to campaigns.

On the whole, it’s a very exciting time, says California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. “The days of the clipboards are gone,” he said, “but not that long ago it was all highlighters, white boards and precinct maps.”

Prior to his current role, Newsom was elected mayor of San Francisco in 2003 — the city’s youngest mayor in 100 years — and was re-elected in 2007 with 72 percent of the vote. He was named the Most Social Mayor in America by reputation management firm Samepoint in 2010, following a study that measured social media influence. Newsom is writing a book on how citizens can use social media, technology and available government data to cut through bureaucratic red tape and redesign government in their own image.

Technology is more prevalent and easier to for candidates to harness, but it isn’t a sure thing. “You still have to engage people and get them to take action. The focus has to be on converting,” said Ryan Davis, director of social media for Blue State Digital, the firm behind the development and management of President Barack Obama’s historic 2008 online campaign.

The key to organizing a strong campaign is being aware of everything one’s supporters are doing and encouraging activism, said NationBuilder’s Green. “The goal is to always be trying to get people to take on more responsibility,” he said.
Technology is a bigger part of campaigns than it probably ever has been, said Alex Torpey, village president of South Orange, N.J. “Ten years ago, people were just starting to really use the Internet to campaign, but it still hadn’t really filtered down to the local races.” Now, however, technology is so inexpensive and accessible that anyone can use it.

“I think that has amazing democratization implications for the political process, which ironically enough could seriously use some democratizing,” he said. Torpey, the second youngest mayor in New Jersey, says he won his election “by bringing technology to government and government to the people.”

Despite all the advancements in digital technology to support campaigns, the new technology largely still exists to support traditional campaign mediums like television. The next shift must move beyond brand building and fundraising.

“It’s frustrating,” said Liberty Concepts’ Karush. “The democratic utility of all the things we can do online is so much more than TV. But online is still very much about mobilizing money to buy more TV ad space. We haven’t cracked all the applications of ‘get out the vote’ online.”

Outside of the federal sphere, the challenge between TV and online is not nearly as relevant. “In local races, where TV and radio don’t make much sense, online platforms provide those with the forethought to use them a big advantage,” Torpey said, adding that online fundraising is the lowest-hanging fruit. “I was able to start raising money online in the first two weeks of my website launch. That helped us print material and buy advertising going forward. Sharing content is probably the second piece, allowing someone with a Facebook account and an email list to broadcast content cheaply, quickly and massively.”

Right now, online technology can be harnessed to organize volunteers, manage walk and call lists, drive donations, create events, tap into social networks and more, all of which can drive real world action, as can gathering geospatial data, connecting to voter files, social graphing, micro-targeted scripts and a real-time data stream back to the campaign. Ultimately, to be effective, online campaigning needs to deliver actual results — public sentiment and votes at the ballot box.

“While 2012 isn’t showing a lot of innovation on the front end, we are seeing enormous development at the back end,” Karush said. “The database building efforts are virtually Amazonian — they’ve gotten really, really good at voter profiling. While there is no game changer, this election cycle shows more refinement.”
A big transformation is occurring in three phases, according to NationBuilder’s Green. First candidates started getting their own websites, like Bill Clinton did in 1992; second, they started using online tools to get people to do traditional campaign tasks online: Online fundraising is by now a proven commodity, for instance. The third, Green said, will come later, when campaigns are enabled entirely online.

Online relationship building, through email and social networking sites, continues to grow. Facebook’s privacy settings allow candidate apps, such as those by President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, to access and keep Facebook’s members’ information, such as name, gender, religious and political views and photographs. What’s more, they can post status updates, notes, photos and videos on behalf of their app users.

When Micah L. Sifry, co-founder and editor of the Personal Democracy Forum, presented as part of a panel at the South by Southwest festival in March this year, he called this process “Facebookization.” “And to be clear,” he said, “it includes more than just the Facebook data; it includes all of the data exhaust that people share about themselves that the campaigns are trying to vacuum up. This isn’t something ordinary people can do — unless you know not only how to code apps, but also how to spot patterns in the resulting data.”

Use of Facebook, he said, is not about broadly segmented advertising. It’s about “campaigns’ ability to access their supporters’ social graph, mine them for insights and then presumably make sophisticated and targeted use of word-of-mouth networks,” Sifry said.

What’s starting to change now is the accessibility of these systems, applications and technology to lower-budget campaigns at the state and local levels. Cost, along with aggregation and keeping up with a multitude of different sites and platforms, have presented challenges. But the introduction of offerings like NationBuilder to the market opened up a new arena. For as little as $33 a month, a candidate gains a custom website; people database; leaderboards that recognize top supporters; integrated communication via email, text, voice, Facebook and Twitter; real-time activity streams; fundraising; and volunteer coordination. What’s more, NationBuilder is highly customizable without a line of code. It was designed for people with no tech background to be up and running within minutes.

“The Internet is as much about content as it is people. If you can empower organizing, you can change who gets elected and how,” said NationBuilder’s Green.

Torpey used NationBuilder during his campaign and continues to use it as a governance tool. “I think most people running for office are realizing the value in not just online media, but advanced micro-targeting, massive data mining, mobile apps and crowdsourcing ideas and energy,” he said. “We’re seeing people build on a lot of the tools that are available, which is decreasing their price and increasing their accessibility.”

For current elections, everything is going mobile, localized, social, geospatial and getting more sophisticated. The advantage is that candidates can really know who they’re talking to at a much deeper level than before.
For those who haven’t already built tech strategies, all is not lost. “It’s a myth that you need to have been at this for years, and the opposite may be true,” Newsom said. “Technology is moving at such a rapid rate, you won’t be burdened or held back by tired systems.”

But, he points out, the message behind the technology is critical. “It is not just how you deliver the message, but the message itself. You have to have value — not just in what you’re saying, but in how you’re listening.”

Unlike the high permeation of federal campaigns, people often don’t have an opinion in local elections — they may not even know who is running. This creates a tremendous opportunity to run a targeted field campaign. There are no foregone conclusions at the local level; people’s minds are typically undecided.

With all the possibility, it can be easy to lose sight of the potential pitfalls. Votizen’s Binetti cautioned that “technology — either social media or otherwise — is not magic pixie dust. Your donations won’t automatically go up just by adding PayPal to your website, and supporters won’t start using some new click-to-call tool in absence of a reason to do so. So the hard work of creating a message and platform that inspires, and setting up the reward structure to encourage people to act still remains. Technology can make these easier to accomplish and can help scale up organizations, but it won’t make these fundamental requirements of a political campaign disappear.”

What technology has done, however, is allowed candidates at every level to connect via personalized message with vast numbers of voters, creating platforms for two-way conversations and feedback. The future of campaigning will only grow more targeted and personal, merging the physical and the virtual. The ability to process inbound conversations, in ways previously unthinkable, will become critical, said Binetti.

Looking ahead, the most exciting part, Torpey said, is the increase in accessibility. “It is going to allow people to run for office, especially at local levels, who 10 years ago probably couldn’t. I think we’re going to see a tremendous transformation over the next several years of younger and more independent people running for office, which will do great things for public policy debate and innovation in this country.

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.