A whole new world of campaign tech
In the online video Hillary Rodham Clinton used to launch her first presidential campaign back in 2007, she was perched on a couch describing her plans for ending the war in Iraq. Last month, she launched another presidential campaign with another video, this one showcasing the stories of “everyday” Americans at various stages of their lives.
In the intervening eight years, it’s not just the content that changed. Chances are, most voters who viewed that first video did so on a desktop or laptop computer. The second one? Probably via smartphone or tablet.
That difference is evidence of how much the digital landscape has changed — and how quickly. Clinton has twice used online videos to announce her candidacy, but the ways those messages were watched, shared, and critiqued were dramatically different.
Digital in 2016 will be faster, more intense, and more mobile than it was in 2008, and that has repercussions for how this season’s crop of presidential candidates will behave and how their campaigns will unfold in New Hampshire and beyond.
Candidates will still shake hands, give speeches, and pose for photos, but successful campaigns will also need to amass a suite of high-tech tools.
“Every campaign has to lead with digital. All of them,” said Andrew Hemingway, a former Republican candidate for New Hampshire governor and longtime champion of election technology. “There’s no way you can’t lead with digital.”
The notion of using digital technology during a campaign isn’t new. Dean Spiliotes, a political scientist and civic scholar at Southern New Hampshire University, remembers some candidates posting basic biographical information online in the late 1990s. By 2004, campaign websites were standard fare. Four years later, those websites were flashier, and the operatives behind them were better versed in using the Web to connect with voters.
What’s changed in recent years, said Spiliotes, is the ease of producing, sharing, and watching online video. Instead of just reading about a candidate’s speech, voters can see it for themselves anywhere they can connect to a Wi-Fi or 3G signal. And, thanks to live streaming apps like Meerkat and Periscope, video is likely to be even an even bigger part of 2016.
“It’s taking the idea of experiencing the campaign over the Web to a whole new level,” he said.
The availability of video has shifted the tenor of campaign events in early states like New Hampshire, said Spiliotes. Candidates used to be able to slip into a remote town hall to quietly test a few sections of a stump speech. Now, anything they say has the potential to go viral online.
“It’s . . . made each of the events here more global,” he said. “(Candidates) don’t get any time to ease into it anymore. They almost delay showing up because they know what a scene it’s going to be.”
When Clinton launched her first campaign in January 2007, the Web was already culturally significant, but many of its most familiar brands — Kickstarter, Dropbox, and Instagram – didn’t exist. Facebook was still mostly for college kids. Twitter was less than a year old. The iPhone had just made its debut, but the average consumer wouldn’t be able to buy one until that June.
Now, our lives are tightly intertwined with these things and many others like them, making digital techniques crucial for candidates or causes trying to reach voters.
“The first thing they do when they get up in the morning is check their phone,” Hemingway said. “They’re connected. Everyone does that. My parents do that. It’s become a part of our lifestyle.”
That digital lifestyle produces vast quantities of data campaigns can use to target their ads more precisely than ever before. Instead of buying time during a certain type of TV program and hoping for the best, campaigns can craft specific messages to follow a desired demographic around the Web — and watch in real time to see whether voters are watching or clicking away after a few seconds.
“You can really target a very specific group with a specific message,” said Collin Gately, digital director at the Messina Group. “The holy grail for any advertiser . . . is that you’re getting the most relevant message in front of the right people.”
Also on the rise: political apps. It’s becoming easier to create and distribute mobile apps, and that has the potential to put some interesting tools in front of voters this cycle. There are apps to help decipher political ad spending, to aggregate poll numbers, and to connect voters to members of their congressional delegation.
In 2012, Hemingway and two colleagues added their own invention to the mix — a fund-raising platform called GrassLoot that allows users to donate to candidates and political organizations through their phones. He expects to see more apps debut during this election cycle.
“It obviously takes some expertise, and it takes some specialty,” said Hemingway. “But this is the type of thing that’s going to be happening. There’s just going to be a plethora of these innovations. They’re inexpensive to build. Talent is more readily available in that space.”
These digital tools are exciting, but they’re not without challenges. Social media has played an increasingly large role in politics since 2008, with the Pew Research Center finding in 2012 that 39 percent of American adults reported using a social network for “civic or political activities.” But the millions of tweets, Facebook posts, and other content flying around the Web each day makes it harder for campaigns to grab — and keep — voters’ attention.
“People get really focused on the day-to-day pitched battles rather than the greater arc of the campaign,” said Spiliotes. “It’s useful for voters, but it’s made the campaign environment even noisier than it already was.”
Gately agrees. Digital politicking is unpredictable, but modern candidates and the people working for them have to be willing to experiment.
“Things can run off the rails pretty quickly,” said Gately. “You can’t be afraid of that.”
All that noise can also make it hard to separate policy from pop culture, something researchers at the University of Texas Austin discovered while they were examining some of the tweets political journalists posted in during a debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012. By chance, doctoral student Rachel Mourao and her colleagues chose the debate in which Romney apologized to Big Bird before declaring that he would cut funding to PBS. Mourao was surprised by how quickly that piece of information spread online. Within minutes, there were memes, hashtags, and plenty of jokes dominating the digital conversation.