Lessons from the US Digital Electoral Campaigns

By Belén Sánchez

When I told my Uncle that I was going to Grad School and that I was going to take a class called “Running for Office”, he took a pause in order to first translate those three words in Spanish in order to see if that could mean something at all.  After some seconds he said “What is the science behind running around a desk? I can teach you that”. I responded with a “ha ha ha very funny.. there is a lot of science behind running and winning an election”.

As expected, I am getting a wealth of accumulated knowledge that all the political gurus have used in the past in order to know the districts, staff the campaign, set up the budget, build the message, fundraise, conduct polls and manage media relations.  However, digital technologies are a new factor in this game and it is reshaping the way politicians confront elections in the US and it will probably affect the rules of any election around the Globe as well.

Sasha Issenberg presents in his book, The Victory Lab, the evolution of American elections and politics. An important transition seems to have taken place in the political and electoral field in the United States.  This transition seems to present the evolution from data polling to data analytics and within it an increased praise for geeks versus political experts.

The Obama campaigns of 2004 and 2008 are the main reference when it comes to understanding how digital elements can help a candidate to gain advantage in front of his or her rivals.  A report prepared for the Wilburforce Foundation presents a through systematization of the different digital elements used by the Obama for America New Media Campaign.  Among these elements they mentioned email, social networks, YouTube videos and mobile text messaging.  The combination of smart technologies and tactics generated important successes.  For example, one of the fundraising strategies relied on the tactic of keeping supporters in the spotlight through frequent email alerts with requests for funds during crucial campaign moments. One of them happened when Sarah Palin ridiculed community organizers. That day, the campaign sent an email that enabled action among the campaign supporters and they were able to raise $11 million dollars.

Behind all the technologies, there was a team of talented professionals who were responsible for the successful implementation of these innovations.  The Obama campaign decided to bring on board and take advantage of the skills that companies in Silicon Valley normally hire. Top professionals including data analysts, online writers, developers and filmmakers brought their agile skills and built a culture where data analytics became more important than any guru´s gut feeling.

In the midst of all this sophistication, how can we explain that in just the past year several campaign pollsters and media have underestimated the results of important electoral processes like Brexit in the UK, the peace treaty consultation in Colombia and just two days ago with the US election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump?  Was Obama’s data-driven campaign an exceptionally unique experience? Are we predestined to keep repeating the Bradley effect?

As Jim Rutenberg argues, data has limitations and it cannot always capture the human condition. And I would argue that the failed predictions of pollsters were probably more affected by the false declarations of shy voters and less by the math and algorithms processing the data.  So before taking advantage of the power of digital technologies, the political and media establishment will have to find a way in order to regain trust of all those voices to whom they pretend to represent, and will need to create safe spaces and enable agency in all of us so we can bring back to the light all the hidden narratives that have been suppressed and behind which rely authentic positions of people on issues that matter.



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