JOSE, Calif. — Presidential campaigns this time around
have a new technological ace in the hole — you.
off two decades of digital wizardry, the campaigns are
getting ready to monitor and analyze most of what you do
online instantaneously. And if you forward certain
political emails to your Aunt Maggie in Iowa or your old
college roommate in Ohio, they’ll reward you for doing
technology will no doubt make it easier for campaigns to
personalize their messages and respond in seconds, but
it will also test the will and patience of privacy
advocates who might feel a little itchy about campaigns
looking over everyone’s shoulders in real time.
years in the digital age is like a generation in the
industrial age, so whatever data mining they did four
years ago will look like an antique now," said
Andrew Rasiej, founder of New York-based Personal
Democracy Media, which tracks the intersection of
technology and politics.
it’s hard to believe that the first presidential
campaign websites were born only two decades ago. By
2012, the campaigns learned not just your political
leanings but also what kind of car you drove, the
restaurants you preferred and even your favorite tipple
to predict what you wanted to hear and how you might
seem to be trying harder to mine data this time around,
in part because the last presidential election was such
a technological catastrophe for the GOP. Nominee Mitt
Romney’s data-crunching proved to be feeble, and his
get-out-the-vote system crashed on Election Day. But
Republicans have since recruited top-shelf Silicon
Valley talent and built a titanic data operation with a
considerable investment from prominent conservative
benefactors such as Charles and David Koch.
thing is clear: Both Republicans and Democrats will use
their data-mining and real-time tracking skills to find
out whether you are their ideal mouthpiece.
big new thing in the 2016 election is going to be
finding supporters who will help carry the candidate’s
message to their friends and family," said Mike
Conlow, technology director at digital strategy firm
Blue State Digital and former deputy chief technology
officer of President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign.
"A supporter talking to their friends and family is
more powerful than the campaign blasting out their
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the past, a supporter of a Democratic presidential
candidate in California — which has a primary election
so late that it usually doesn’t matter, and a general
election that’s a surefire win for almost any Democrat
— might have been simply put on a fundraising email
Conlow said, campaigns will know before the primaries
whether that California supporter has friends or
relatives in Iowa or New Hampshire — or, before the
general election, in battleground states like Nevada or
Ohio. Campaigns will be able to track with whom
supporters share content from the candidate’s website
on social media, or through a "forward to a
friend" link on a campaign’s email.
they’ve pegged you as an "influencer,"
campaigns will gradually cajole you to share more
content, make phone calls or even do field work on the
candidate’s behalf, Conlow said.
as many social media users crave the pleasurable feeling
of a "like" on Facebook or Instagram, or a
"favorite" on Twitter, campaigns will seek new
ways to give those influencers some positive
reinforcement, Conlow said. Even something so mundane as
a little gold star for each person with whom you share
content could serve as a potent motivator and a badge of
of 2012’s "nanotargeting" — voter-by-voter
profiling based on a mashup of voter rolls, consumer
data, social media activity and more — was based on
information compiled over time, producing a picture that
campaigns could use to predict and try to influence what
people would do.
a still picture of a race won’t show who is slowing
down or speeding up.
companies such as San Francisco-based Zignal Labs can
mine data streams in real time from Twitter, Facebook,
social video sites like YouTube and Vimeo, a few hundred
thousand online news outlets and millions of blogs and
transcripts. The data stream is then funneled into a
single, instant information feed.
a candidate gives a stump speech or news breaks out, the
new technology will almost instantaneously pinpoint how
it’s playing across the media and social media
if GOP presidential hopeful Rand Paul’s staff wants to
know how bloggers in Baltimore, tweeters in Tulsa,
Okla., or reporters in Racine, Wis., are reacting to his
comments on the Confederate flag controversy, they can
do so before he even leaves the podium. Or if a negative
story about Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and
Benghazi is brewing, her campaign can gauge its impact
before it spreads too far — and scramble to respond.
in a few presidential campaigns already in this cycle,
and our goal is to be in every single one," said
Zignal CEO Josh Ginsberg, formerly Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger’s political director and national field
director for Romney’s 2008 campaign. "If you can
see all this as it’s coming in, how people are
responding and how reporters are reporting this story
… you have the ability to quickly recalibrate and
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launched in 2011 as a company aimed at helping
businesses, but with Ginsberg at its helm and other
political experts — such as GOP strategist Steve
Schmidt and Democratic crisis-communications guru Chris
Lehane — on its advisory board, it’s now poised to
make a big campaign splash.
have depended on public opinion polls and focus groups
to give us a sense of where the electorate’s mind is
… but this has the potential to be the third leg of
the stool," said Michael Cornfield, acting director
of George Washington University’s political management
program, who recently collaborated with Zignal on a
project quantifying how voters have been reacting to
presidential campaign launches.
monitoring of social and mass media provides unprompted
responses" because instead of answering a pollster’s
question, people are saying what’s on their minds of
their own volition, Cornfield said. "That gives you
a sense of what’s on the public’s mind independent
of any researcher’s predisposition."
Ginn — a "growth hacker" who finds new,
creative ways to combine marketing with coding and data
analysis to build audiences or users — worked on
Romney’s 2012 campaign and later co-founded Lincoln
Labs, a think tank for conservative techies. He agreed
that 2016’s campaigns will bring "more and more
knowing their targets could be made easier by using data
providers like i360, an Arlington, Va., company in which
the Koch brothers have invested millions since 2012. The
firm aims to catch up with, or perhaps outstrip, the
data technology that helped Obama win in 2008 and 2012.
company mixes voter information, consumer and credit
data, social media activity, political connections, TV
viewership data and more into a constantly updated
database of more than 190 million active voters and 250
million U.S. consumers — basically producing a
complete profile of every American adult who’s
currently or potentially politically active.
of this data is already available, but these new methods
are like switching from a hand-held Dustbuster to an
industrial-strength Shop-Vac to suck that data up, and
from a 1984 Macintosh to a 2015 MacPro to crunch it. So
it has the potential to make the hair stand up on the
napes of privacy-rights activists — and perhaps a lot
of average voters.
probably a fine line to walk: If you push it too far, it
does look a little like the things that bother people
most about the digital world: surveillance and invasion
of privacy," said Barbara Trish, political science
chairwoman at Iowa’s Grinnell College and an expert in
campaign data analysis. And, she added, the last thing
campaigns want is for voters to feel "creeped
out" by their methods.
would really want to monitor whether this is producing
the results that they want," she added. But she
acknowledged that from a campaign’s perspective, the
potential is enormous.
seems pretty exciting."
MOMENTS IN CAMPAIGN TECHNOLOGY
— Presidential candidates create campaign websites for
the first time.
— Republican candidate John McCain stuns the political
world by raising $2.2 million online in the week after
his upset victory in the New Hampshire primary.
— Democratic candidate Howard Dean uses Meetup.com to
build a better grass-roots organization than his rivals.
He was also the first to make online fundraising appeals
pegged to breaking news events — and the first to
launch a campaign blog.
— Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama lets
supporters connect their Facebook accounts with his
website, giving him free access to a vast social network
of voters and contributors. He also used YouTube and
Twitter to reach wide audiences at no cost.
— "Big data" analysis becomes more precise
and sophisticated, allowing campaigns to use voters’
political opinions, consumer preferences, lifestyle
choices and more to customize and personalize candidates’