10 Ways the Internet Changed Political Campaigning

December 12, 2016 - 14 minutes read

The advent of internet has allowed people to engage in the campaign process on a scale never done before. Campaigns are building meaningful relationships with millions of voters, “converting everyday people into engaged and empowered volunteers, donors and advocates through social networks, e-mail advocacy, text messaging and online video.” Taking a major part of the campaign process online has had a transformative effect on campaigns allowing them to significantly increase their effectiveness and improve conversion rates.

The 2016 U.S presidential election saw the Trump campaign spend 50% of its budget on digital, a number that is still mostly inconceivable to many campaigns. Most campaigns spent 15%-20% of their budget on digital. The move comes as a bold statement to the widely prevalent trend of moving bigger chunks of political campaigns into the digital world. 

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The face of political campaigning has changed forever and these are ten ways the internet managed to do that:

Cost

This is an arguable statement. Every statistic shows that campaign costs have skyrocketed over recent years. But those stats are an account of overall costs while I’m talking about specific situations where internet has helped cut back on costs for a political campaign. MediaQuant, a firm that tracks media coverage for each candidate and assigns a dollar value to it based on advertising rates recently evaluated the 2016 presidential campaign. Donald Trump reportedly got more than $4.96 billion in free media coverage and out of that more than $3 billion came from the internet through online news, blogs, forums and social media. Twitter alone had a big chunk of the coverage chipping in at around $400 million. Although large campaigns offset most of these savings through heavy investment in other technologies, internet coverage comes as a big break for small campaigns that are strapped for resources.

Reach

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Illustration by Matt Murphy. Source: theguardian.com

“Facebook and Twitter helped us win this.” says Brad Parscale in response to Katherine Miller about what worked best for them digitally in the 2016 election; attesting to the power of social media to help win elections. With a single Tweet or a Facebook post, candidates reach millions of potential voters with their message. This election season saw Donald Trump doing just that, effectively marketing his candidacy to millions of people through social media. With 17 million Twitter followers, 16 million Facebook likes and 4 million Instagram followers; his every tweet, post and campaign update were seen and shared by people around the world. Most of his Tweets set off chain reactions further earning him thousands of hours of free media coverage. With 78% of the U.S population having a social media profile, social media has become the ultimate tool for broadcasting the a candidates voice across the world.

Listen to Clinton and Trump campaign teams discussing the 2016 presidential campaign:

Personalisation

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According to a PEW report from 2015, millennials have surpassed baby boomers to become the largest U.S generation. This group has inevitably become a prime target for vote canvassing by candidates. But engaging this politically liberal group in a conversation is tough work and requires a personal touch to outreach. Luckily, internet saves the day again by providing a platform for healthy engagement between candidates and voters in their constituency. Social media helps place focus on the individual rather than the political party, expanding the arena for increased personalised outreach. These mediums fit well into the candidates need to communicate directly with people and lay the foundation for long-term relationships between the voter and the candidate.

Data

‘Behaviour is driven by personality,’ says Alexander Nix, Chief Executive of Cambridge Analytica; the analytics firm that managed data for the Trump campaign. By analysing ‘4000-5000 data points’ on every single adult in the U.S, the company successfully modelled a marketing strategy that micro-targeted ads to individual personality traits, subtly accommodating voter behaviour in one direction. “Cambridge Analytica sliced and diced the electorate so Trump could talk to small groups directly, or even one at a time: one email or letter to the timid introvert at No. 22 who cares about jobs and limited government, another to the loud extrovert next door who cares about gun rights and Isis.” says Spectator magazine about the data crunching efforts of the Trump campaign. The company harvests billions of data points from social media, purchase history, phone calls, consumer data and Facebook surveys all made accessible through the internet. From targeted TV ads and detailed modelling of swing states to increasing the effectiveness of phone calls and door knocking campaigns, tailored digital ads have become a boon for political campaigns.

Mobilisation

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Source: out.com

I bet you all remember the US supreme court’s landmark ruling to legalise same-sex marriages throughout the country. It was equally amazing how people around the world came together to support the ruling by adding a rainbow filter to their profile images. 26 million people changed their profiles into visible statements of LGBT pride and support. This kind of mobilisation is only made possible by the power of internet, to break down barriers and mobilise people for a single cause.

Social media plays an instrumental role for campaigns, activating networks of followers and supporters spread across the constituency to join them together for the campaign.

The “Walk For Change” grassroots movement as part of the Obama campaign is an example of how  the internet was used to mobilise thousands of volunteers across 50 states for a nationwide neighbourhood walk. The “Walk For Change” interactive map on the campaign website allowed supporters across the country to sign up for an event near them, create their own event and invite friends and family to join.

Engagement

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Source: Edelman Research, “The Social Pulpit,” 2009

From recent AMA’s by Hillary Clinton on Reddit and Quora to actively participating in discussions across social media, campaigns are utilising every online social arena for personal engagements with voters. These social networks have already built up an audience, and a candidate who knows how to successfully leverage these mediums has the potential to turn the sentiment of millions of voters in their favour. Social media represents new opportunities of engagement for candidates to connect with voters, get feedback on political issues and keep supporters updated about the progress of the campaign.

Participation

Now, more than ever, people are actively participating in advancing campaign goals. The internet has given them the opportunity to become part of a cause they believe in from the comfort of their homes. The 2008 Obama campaign saw registered users plan 200,000 offline events, write 400,000 blog posts and create more than 35,000 volunteer groups. A look at the volunteer page of the Hillary campaign website shows visitors exactly how they can become part of the campaign. Making calls, knocking on doors, hosting phone banking parties are all made accessible to people across the country through the simple act of visiting the campaign website and signing up.

Recruitment

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Web forms have changed the way volunteers are recruited for campaigns. There was a time when volunteers were mainly recruited by handing out brochures, posters and getting the word around through your contacts. The internet has made it a lot easier to get the word out when campaigns require volunteers as well as make it easier for interested persons to join. Supporters can head over to the campaign website and directly sign up using their web form. A recent example is the use of CallHub web forms by Le Republicans campaign for the 2016 French primary election to recruit more than 800 volunteers within a span of 4 months. Before we had the internet to rely on this would have seemed like an impossible task; or a task that could have been accomplished only by the major league parties.

Fundraising

“I’m going to hold a fundraiser right here, right now, across America,” Bernie Sanders told his supporters in his speech after winning the New Hampshire Primary. He urged his supporters to visit his website and make a donation “whether it’s $10 bucks, $20 bucks, or $50 bucks”. 18 hours and $5.2 million later, the campaign had broken the fundraising record for money raised in less than a day. An achievement such as this was inconceivable before the dawn of internet. Today, campaigns have time and again relied on the internets power to reach out to supporters and make it as easy as clicking a button to donate to a cause they believe in.

Testing

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Variation 1 Source: ispionage.com

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Variation 2

Every campaign needs to follow a solid plan to work, right? You plan ahead for months of campaigning, laying out exactly what needs to be done during the course of the campaign, which emails to send out, which design to use on the website and basically every part of the campaign. Well, no. Not anymore. Campaigns have increasingly stopped following a rigid plan of approach and have started moulding every part of the campaign according to user responses. Everything that has anything to do with the campaign is tested rigorously to make sure it’s exactly what people want to see. Thousands of customised e-mails are sent and different versions of the campaign website are displayed to different groups of people and real-time improvements are made after analysing responses. Before the internet, campaigns would necessarily go one way. But now, campaigns have the flexibility to go anywhere and change anyhow to strike the right chord with the public.

To say “With great power, come great responsibility.” may be cliché; but understanding the statement in it’s essence is paramount, now more than ever. The internet has spread to almost every corner of the world and is steadily on its way to become an indispensable part of every human life. Political campaigns hold the power to sway the minds of millions of people through this medium. Using that power responsibly falls upon campaigns and the candidates who represent them.

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