What Your Digital Advocacy Program Can Learn from Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz
Every political presidential cycle brings us a new wave of technology that eventually trickles down to the hoi polloi to use. But this year is somewhat different. The technology, and the way it’s being employed by the Ted Cruz’s and Bernie Sanders of the world might be groundbreaking in the way they’re using it, but the good news is much of it’s already available to the rest of us.
Digital political campaigns have come a long way in two election cycles. Back in the good old days of 2008, when Sen. Barack Obama heralded a new, digitally dominated presidential run – spurred by the relatively new social media platform, Twitter – the game forever changed.
Obama’s edge on competitors, with his use of technology to energize and target young grassroots voters, was paramount to going door-to-door for an age group that turned out to be critical to his win.
Oh, how quaint.
Back then, websites and a PC were still the main players. Apple’s first iPhone didn’t arrive until four months after Obama announced his intention to run, and Twitter was less than a year old.
Fast forward to 2016, when such dinosaurs of digital have been overtaken by big data, micro-targeting, and psycho-profiling. And they’re all taking place on a mobile device, or an app, within arms reach of you.
Given that, it may not be a coincidence that some of the more digitally active candidates are still in the running, and surprising many in certain quarters.
Bernie Sanders supporters have been particularly active, so it’s not surprising that many of them are younger voters. His app, “Field the Bern,” instructs users how to canvas, allowing for quick references to Sanders’ policy information; helps campaigners find doors to knock on – and then enter the data from the households they’ve called at – and allows them to track their progress and compete with fellow canvassers or friends for points.
Users have to sign in using a Facebook account or an email, and the app repeatedly asks users to allow it to track their locations. Sanders’ campaign has said it does not share it data with analytics companies, but it does with consultants and vendors.
That point-building competition element is also part of Ted Cruz’s campaign app, a digital grassroots wizardry that’s been credited with his win in Iowa and other states. But Cruz is also using the big data his campaign is gleaming to big effect.
Those who download the Cruz Crew app are asked to sign in using their Facebook pages, which means the campaign gets access to all sorts of information about them, including their friends and relatives. If you don’t use a Facebook account you have to put in an email or phone number to use the app.
If you sign up with email, you’re sent a security code to enter before you’re allowed access to the app.
According to the Washington Post, Cruz has a team of statisticians and behavioral psychologists who use psychographic targeting to deliver tailored messages, phone calls and visits to voters according to their interests. “Micro-targeting of voters has been around for well over a decade, but the Cruz operation has deepened the intensity of the effort and the use of psychological data,” the Post writes.
To process the data, the Cruz campaign hired a group called Cambridge Analytica. In 2015 alone, the Cruz campaign paid Cambridge $3.8 million, more than 8 percent of all its spending, according to the Associated Press. And Cambridge means business. They are said to have 75 employees working on the campaign, using exclusive algorithms to predict personality traits, known as psychographic profiling, to better micro-target users likely to vote for Cruz.
Cruz himself has said: “I’m the son of two mathematicians and computer programmers,” so his interest in all this is far from skin deep.
Jonathan Lacoste, political columnist, co-founder and CEO of Jebbit, a creative interactive micro-content company, says the use of digital technology in this election has far surpassed its use in previous elections.
The technical capabilities of honing down a voting contingent has changed so dramatically that candidates – if they choose to – can micro-target voters with specific interests to draw in their loyalty and interest. It also helps them to make a bigger impact in swing states, where votes are critical to winning, he says.
So how does micro-targeting actually work? Well, say you’re a traditional type who values family time and the Second Amendment? You might be flashed an online ad of a family hunting together, urging you to sign an online petition. Are you a little more neurotic? You might see an ad of someone breaking into a house, which urges you toward the same landing page to put in your details, to support the Second Amendment.
“The biggest challenge is always going to be insuring that voters feel their privacy is protected and their data is not being violated,” Lacoste says.
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton don’t seem to have officially sanctioned apps, but that doesn’t mean they’re sitting quietly on the fence.
Clinton, who lost to Obama’s groundbreaking 2008 digital campaign, is applying lessons learned this time around. Her digital director, Katie Dowd, told CNN she has “a production team” at work on Clinton’s digital and social media footprint.
And it’s working. Fan videos taken during the Iowa primaries, capturing her political and personal life over the past four decades, blew up on Facebook and on the video app SnapShot.
Clinton’s campaign has also been using Periscope to live stream video via Twitter.
“I think the Clinton campaign has done very well,” Lacoste says.
While Donald Trump isn’t apparently using any type of algorithmic approach, he has nonetheless soaked up all the attention using a relatively “old school” social media approach, according to Lacoste.
“How Trump has leveraged social media shows the extreme strength, and weakness, of social media,” Lacoste says.
Trump’s morning Twitter rants have been competing on a level usually reserved for cat videos and dancing babies.
From an attention standpoint, the way Trump has been able to control the conversation through this method, “has been quite surprising to a lot of us,” says Lacoste.
Marco Rubio and Bernie Sanders have also been messaging through social media, but their remarks haven’t been as outlandish or entertaining as Trump’s, so it doesn’t go viral, or draw as much media attention, Lacoste says.
Ironically, Sanders, with his use of the phone app, has put a better grassroots program together than Obama did in 2008, when looking at sheer volume, according to Lacoste.
As far as Cruz’s use of personality profiling, Lacoste says the firms conducting that have been “very tight-lipped” about the success they’re having through its use. Lacoste says probably the best way of assessing Cruz’s digital campaign is the fact that he’s polling well and still in the running, despite being sometimes viewed as an outsider by the GOP.
What Does the Future Hold?
Lacoste predicts future elections will continue to use psychographic profiling and will try to tailor digital messages to each voter. He adds that this type of campaigning will make it more interesting and relevant to voters.
Right now, voters are getting slammed with a lot of general messaging, but one of the benefits of this degree and depth of data collection is that it remains viable to use in future elections.
Part II: Tips For Building Grassroots with Technology
Whether you’re running for president, or trying to pull in more grassroots champions for a cause, digital campaigning is crucial. Here are some tips from industry experts Terra Spero, co-founder of RealTime Marketing Group, and Gary Meltz, principal at Meltz Communications, a political communications firm.
CQ Connectivity: How important is a digital campaign?
Spero: Digital offers the greatest opportunity to connect a politician with his or her constituents in a way that is genuine and impactful. In a world where party lines are not as clear as they used to be, a candidate must understand what the priorities are to each individual. Nothing lets you understand that as well as digital marketing and big data.
Meltz: It’s a cornerstone of modern campaigning. There’s no understating it; it’s how people exchange information today.
CQ Connectivity: What can advocacy professionals do to gain supporters using digital means?
Meltz: All the same rules apply to advocacy as they do to election campaigns.
Spero: In this day and age, it is truly a time where every voice counts. Be diligent, create groups of like-minded individuals – ensure that they are all registered to vote … and then, take your stand.
CQ Connectivity: What’s the most important thing to remember when targeting with technology?
Meltz: When micro-targeting, be careful not to jumble your narrative. Generally, people support a candidate [or issue] because of one broad message. When breaking down a larger message into smaller components, be careful not to step on the main message, which brought the voter on board in the first place.
Spero: Be aware that mistakes are amplified. Digital campaigning isn’t like being in a small town, where what you say only stands a small chance of going viral. Digital campaigning is the most visible form of campaigning, and even small mistakes will be painstakingly pulled apart.
CQ Connectivity: Is it necessary to stay up on the latest trends in social media to run an effective digital campaign?
Spero: It is absolutely relevant. A younger generation trusts this technology as their only news source, and an older generation thinks that every post they see is meant for them, and is something they should share. If you are not aware of the trends, you will be left behind.
Meltz: It’s critical. There’s no underestimating the use of social media. It’s one of the pillars of how you reach voters. Campaigning will lean more and more heavily on digital technology into the future. It will require more creativity to reach voters through the use of digital media, but in the long run, it will be cheaper.
CQ Connectivity: How do you picture the use of big data evolving for future campaigning or advocacy issues?
Spero: Big data is not only a factor, it will become what wins and loses elections. Companies are creating open-source programs that allow mass quantities of data to be executed with relatively little cost … the amount of data that exists is astounding.
Meltz: All of these things are going to become more prevalent. If it’s something that helps you identify potential voters, then that’s what it’s all about. Advertising on TV is very expensive. In states where a candidate is already winning, it costs significantly less to try and reach undecided voters through targeted digital campaigning.