The Educated Campaigner

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At the GSPM, 'Online' and 'Internet' are out, and 'Digital' is in.


Some time soon, probably in 2013, the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management will mothball the word “Online” in the titles of its courses and certificate program. 

“Managing Online Campaigns” and “Online Political Strategy” will join the Democracy Online Project (1998-2001) and the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet (2001-2010, in effect) in our display case. We’re going with “Digital” to acknowledge an important development in the world of campaigns, elections, advocacy, governance, and public affairs: political managers rely on digital technology to direct not just the messages that appear on our online screens, but offline communications and activities as well.

Consider, for example, a candidate’s remarks to a gathering of constituents. What roles do our graduates play in the making of such an event? They may well have drafted a short speech for the candidate to deliver. Speechwriting, a classic political craft, is one of our most popular courses. But we will also teach the speechwriters of tomorrow to work with digital analysts to identify search terms to ladle into the prepared text.  They will learn what to tweet before, during and after the event, hashtagging phrases and embedding links to web content meant for wider circulation.  They will track reactions to the event and accompanying messages among targeted groups.  So ask not what a campaign can do for digital strategy…

The digital move to dominance is rooted in two big shifts of power. First, the network of networks known as the Internet has tilted influence power away from the information hubs owned and operated by governments, parties, media companies, and interest groups. Leaders, activists, political entrepreneurs and even voters have been the main beneficiaries of this redistribution; network end users now have a stronger hand than their predecessors in deciding what campaign news and messages they see, when they see them, and what their less attentive but no less intelligent colleagues, friends and families hear about them. Some of these new digital influencers work at the old information repositories. But some do not.

Second, end users have gained computational power to analyze data pertinent to the flows of influence, money, energy, armies and other dynamic resources vital to the winning of campaigns and the understanding of the issues that campaigns take up. Within strategy-making circles, the campaign pollster and ad-making veteran are ceding the authority of expert pronouncements to voices citing social media metrics and the results of randomized experiments. 

Managers equipped with digital analytics aren’t contradicting or overturning senior advisors so much as offering to put their recommendations to quick, clear, and inexpensive tests; it’s the upstarts’ results that carry the day and, in the synergistic way of well-operating teams, suggest revisions for the next round of poll questions and ad themes. The summary term in vogue for this quantitative and quasi-scientific process is “optimization.”

We know that digital powers of distributed influence and optimized data are gaining currency in campaignland because of what our alums tell us. David Payne is Senior Vice President of Digital Advocacy at VOX Global. Part of his job entails keeping tabs on what competitors are doing at middle-sized firms such as his, DCI Group, and Public Strategies, the big companies (APCO, Edelman, Waggener-Edstrom), and the many boutiques catering to clients purchasing strategic communication services.  For years, the “digital” shop was a ghetto, the area in the office where staffers sporting tattoos instead of ties created “solutions” that rarely went beyond their cubicles. 

But, says Payne, in the last couple of years senior officers in the advocacy shops began hearing the same question from their clients: can you apply the same tools that boost sales for us to our grassroots, grasstops, and PAC management operations? It’s true that results in public affairs can’t match those in consumer markets; there are far fewer “sales” points to optimize, and the “sales personnel” consist largely of volunteers. But those results still exceed the previous standards, which has led to a bursting of the ghetto walls.

We also can confirm the shift to digital in what we can see of the 2012 campaigns so far. This cycle, as with each cycle since the 1990s, has featured a river of technological innovations, adaptations, and systemizations. Some of them won’t pan out in solid advantages. For instance, campaigns can now accept money via text messaging. It’s true that texting is faster and more widespread than email, not to mention fundraising events. Bursts of emotion triggered by a dramatic moment on the campaign trail could lead to significant numbers and amounts of impulse donations, as they do in the wake of natural disasters. Yet as Ian Koski, communications director for Senator Chris Coons (D-DE), points out, campaign donations rise most reliably when potential givers are pressured by peers, as at mass rallies. 

It’s hard for campaigns to create those environments, and to refer back to them in subsequent texts without being annoying. So while the FEC has finally approved small donations by text, and the Obama and Romney campaigns have set up numbers for that purpose, there’s good reason for skepticism.

In contrast, the Obama For America’s “Project Narwhal,” named for a predatory Arctic whale capable of deep dives, looks like a solid advance. The project integrates microtargeted messaging across communications devices and channels on the front end and across databases on the back. It promises new efficiencies in voter contact. Operating this digital contraption is creating a niche job market for political managers who know how to formulate and interpret database queries. Succeeding in this niche requires a facility with computer coding and becomes more valuable when the operator knows elements of cognitive psychology.   

As in past cycles, the know-how, if not necessarily the data, gleaned from proven breakthroughs in presidential campaigning will permeate campaigns at other levels, in other countries, and on K Street. We at the GSPM will adapt them for our classroom training. 

The larger lesson is this: More digital players wielding greater power in politics has spurred a demand for qualified digital political managers.  This is where the action is, and where the jobs are.  So we’re going digital, too.

Dr. Michael Cornfield is Acting Director of the Political Management Program at GW’s Graduate School of Political Management.


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