The midterm elections are here, which means you’ll be hearing a lot about how money drives politics. It’s like a contest, with each side trying hard to outraise the other and, with recent Supreme Court decisions opening up the spigots further, you’ll also hear a lot about how “outside money” can influence the outcome of an election. That’s because money can decide elections, because money buys media access, especially TV commercials, which allows candidates to define themselves and their competitors. It used to be a forgone conclusion that the candidate who raised the most money would win the election.
Then the Presidential elections of 2008 and 2012 happened, rocking the political landscape and making money less a factor than before. This was illustrated by the spectacular failure of Karl Rove’s American Crossroads SuperPAC, which spent over $100 million supporting specific candidates only to see 97% of them come out the loser. So what happened? Technology happened, that’s what.
The Obama team in 2008 did something no other candidate has ever done: use technology to out-hustle the opposition, which had a huge financial advantage. It started by collecting data on millions of voters by connecting with them via social media, in particular Facebook, where Obama had over 3 million followers. Using the data they collected, they were able to raise over $639 million dollars in donations of $20 or less, an amazing accomplishment. Social media also allowed them to develop detailed analytics of the landscape across the country, to come up with specific marketing campaigns to target a tiny segment of the electorate, something we call micro-targeting, to help turn out the vote. Team Obama had a group or young technologist that were using Big Data to get their guy elected. They even gave the platform they created a code name: Narwhal. Narwhal unified what Obama for America knew about voters, canvassers, event-goers, and phone-bankers, and it did it in real time.
And it wasn’t like Republicans didn’t try to respond. They thought they learned the lesson in 2008 and in the next election, they came up with their own high-tech answer to Narwhal, which they code-named Orca. Maybe they thought naming their platform after an even more fearsome fish would be all they’d need to win the election but Orca turned out to be a disaster when it went live, much the same way the healthcare.gov website would prove to be a year later. The lesson here is that investing in this kind of technology takes not only money, which the Republicans had plenty of, but time, talent and testing.
The upcoming midterms will prove whether we do have a significant change in the way campaigns are run, with technology trumping money. The same team that helped get President Obama elected is working with Democrats to help them retain the Senate and make gains in the House, using the same analytics and data-mining expertise to target voters and get out the vote. Despite the Orca fiasco, Republicans understand that the world is changing and they, too, are looking at technology to help their election strategy. We’ll see who wins in November.