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2016’s campaign technology takes online tracking to new level

July 20, 2015


SAN JOSE, Calif. — Presidential campaigns this time around have a new technological ace in the hole — you.

Building 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 it.

The 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.

"Four 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.

Indeed, 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 vote.

Republicans 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.

One 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.

"The 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 message."

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In 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 list.

Now, 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.

Once 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.

Just 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 honor.

Much 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.

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But a still picture of a race won’t show who is slowing down or speeding up.

Now, 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.

When 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 spectrum.

So 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.

"We’re 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 course-correct."

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Zignal 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.

"We 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.

"Real-time 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."

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Aaron 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 personalization."

And 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.

The 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.

All 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.

"There’s 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.

"They 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.

"It seems pretty exciting."

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GREAT MOMENTS IN CAMPAIGN TECHNOLOGY

1996 — Presidential candidates create campaign websites for the first time.

2000 — 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.

2004 — 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.

2008 — 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.

2012 — "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’ messages.

 

 


Associated Press