Political Campaigns Wise Up to Technology

The election cycle is in full swing, and we are now only weeks away from deciding who will represent us in a vast array of local, state and federal offices. Attentive citizens can tell ‘tis the season to vote since every Tom, Dick and Harriet is buying advertising in every medium possible. Social media has become one of the most popular platformsto target voters, with Facebook taking its fair share of advertising dollars. But political campaigns haven’t always taken to new technologies as fast as they should.

Today’s political campaigns are a far cry from the days of slogans like “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” In the past, campaigns were run more like tailgate parties than actual political campaigns. Supporters and friends of the candidate would travel from town to town hosting large cookouts with abundant alcohol. Flyers would be posted around town, boasting the candidates’ accomplishments. The press would throw their weight behind a candidate and act as a soapbox to slander the other candidate. Often candidates were recognized for their military service or for having served as Secretary of State. This style of politicking gave way to machine politics and cronyism.

For a time, cronyism was the number one way for politicians to acquire power, giving rise to things like Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed andGrantism. After the assassination of President James Garfield and civil service reform, campaigning became more merit- and campaign promise-based. The next big break for politics was the advent of radio and television, but as it goes in politics, new technologies were slowly adopted. The first transatlantic radio transmission by Marchese Marconi took place in 1901; however, the first documented use of radio in political campaigning didn’t come until 1921 with President Warren Harding. Shortly thereafter, Philo Taylor Farnsworth invented the first working television in 1927, but again it wasn’t until 1948 that Dwight Eisenhower ran the first campaign commercials.


Image Credit: MKH Marketing

Fast forward to the modern day, the 2008 election and Barack Obama’s campaign, which saw the first use of social media in politics. Obama engaged with voters on Twitter and Facebook to remind users to vote. At the time Facebook had but a mere sixth of its current 1.23 billion monthly active users, and Twitter was but a shadow of its current 938.4 million total accounts. And the political use of these new platforms was just in its infancy.

It wasn’t until the 2012 elections that Obama’s campaign leveraged social media effectively. In the last few weeks leading up to the election, his campaign team developed a mobile application that allowed his campaign to tap into the contacts young people had on the social media platforms Twitter and Facebook. This helped the campaign reach young voters in swing states who did not have listed phone numbers. By tapping into the contacts these young people had, Obama was able to mobilize his base.

Recently, Facebook upgraded advertising on its website. As a community outreach specialist and online organizer, I noticed immediately that Facebook now allows page administrators to import existing lists of supporters from platforms like NationBuilder and Mail Chimp, and to design ads that target specifically only those supporters. Twitter has offered this feature for months now. These options are excellent add-ons for someone such as myself, who works in engaging volunteers and supporters in different campaigns on such platforms.

These new digital tactics can be used by political campaigns to target specific voters whose emails are registered in election departments as well as in Republican and Democrat databases. Leveraged effectively, these technologies can help candidates focus on getting inveterate voters to support them at the polls and continue changing the way elections are won.