The anti-establishment success of candidates in last week’s presidential primary has produced a lot of deep political analysis about voter sentiment, but it raises a question: Was this a sign that technology is disrupting yet another established industry – in this case, retail politics?
“I think the answer is no, but I do think politics is being transformed, like a lot of things,” said Dean Spiliotes, a longtime observer of the New Hampshire primary, via his NHPoliticalCapitol blog and other outlets. “One of the changes to politics is the central role of technology, data management . . . (and) whether retail politics is becoming virtual retail politics. I think we’re in the process of grappling with it.”
The effect-of-technology question arose after Donald Trump triumphed in the primary despite a relative lack of an established “ground game,” the term for teams of workers and volunteers built up over months to knock on doors, make calls, schedule events, figure out the best places for the candidate to go, and compile lists of helpers, donors and likely voters.
Since a ground game has long been considered vital in the New Hampshire primary, what gives?
It was software, says the CEO of a software package called NationBuilder. Jim Gilliam, a political activists who created the civic organizing software five years ago and has turned it into a hefty California-based company, was the subject of a glowing article on the tech website Re/Code.
“The victories of Sanders and Trump today prove that even our highest office is no longer restricted to the powerful political class,” Re/Code quoted Gilliam as saying.
NationBuilder is an example of what is known as “voter relations management” or VRM, a parallel to the software term “customer relations management” software that helps retail companies hone in on and keep track of their customers.
These VRM packages integrate a number of functions that campaigns require, such as correlating databases, maintaining email lists, accepting payments, building websites and applications for smartphones, and performing “sentiment analysis,” which pores through social media discussions to help campaigns tweak their message on the fly.
Barack Obama’s success in the 2008 and 2012 elections with data management tools brought the idea of VRN to the forefront. A number of firms with names like L2 Politics and NGP VAN have gotten into the business. They help turn data about voters into everything from Instagram posts and Tweets to detailed scripts used by the people who phoned New Hampshire residents endlessly during the lead-up to the primary.
The Democratic and Republican parties have their own systems for doing such tasks. If you saw any earnest young people staying at your polling place for hours, tapping information into their smartphones, they were probably putting turnout numbers into an app to help somebody’s campaign decide how to target last-minute efforts to get out the vote.
“This was the first real intensive smartphone primary,” Spiliotes said.
One of the reasons candidates want to get in their party’s good graces is to have access to such programs, but if software packages allow campaigns to do the same thing with fewer people and less training, then outsider candidates can be more viable.
The question for New Hampshire, where door-to-door retail politics is big business, is whether these platforms and skills are displacing traditional politicking.
Has it become more important to know how to turn big data into good tweets than it is to know which diner to visit or which business owner to approach in each town?
Joe Bafumi is a Dartmouth professor with expertise in the intersection of technology with politics – he even hosted a 2012 conference at Dartmouth called “Campaigning with Big Data” that included a NationBuilder executive on its panel. He is dubious about its sweeping effects, at least for the moment.
“While people often try to attribute campaign victories to one or two things, they are often very complicated. These days, people talk a lot about using big data and superior software, but the reality is these tools usually make minor contributions and are just one part of a much bigger and more complicated story in campaigns for public office,” Bafumi wrote in an email to the Monitor.
Still, that 2012 Dartmouth conference hosted by Bafumi sure sounded like it was describing industry disruption.
“There is some resistance from traditional campaign infrastructure,” said Chris Kelly, a former chief privacy officer at Facebook.
“There is an absolute resistance of change,” said Tom Buxton, chairman of Buxton, a customer analytics firm. “Some of these guys think they’ve got to keep doing it the way they have been doing it.”
Still, everybody agrees that new software itself is no guarantee of success. For example, NationBuilder was not only used by supporters of Donald Trump but was also used to create and organize two drives carrying the not-so-subtle names StopTrump and StopHateDumpTrump. Campaigns are always going to require a lot of hours from people with knowledge of the area, even if those people carry smartphones.
“Prior to 2008 we talked about market research,” Spiliotes said. “To an extent, data analytics, which has become the buzz-phrase, is the modern digital version of market research.”
(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, email@example.com, or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)