I Think I Get it Now????

Don’t you just love it when it all comes together!!!! All semester I have felt somewhat overwhelmed by so many things here. The ideas, the people, the drinking, the workload. Now in the past week or two it all seems to be coming together. There are themes across my classes that seem to be interweaving. That is the case in most of my classes. A certain class that I blogged about last week is an entity unto itself and is likely to remain that way.

The big takeaways are not something I ever expected when I signed up for the Kennedy School. I assumed that we’d cover big thematic things like how to start a war, how to overthrow your government, or how to be a leader even if you aren’t one (not that any of that stuff remotely interests me!). What is actually happening is about data, process, and how you use it to influence people. The connections come from Power and Politics in the Digital Age, Strategic Management of NGO’s, and Behavioral Science.

This week we have been delving into to the political arena by looking at 4 political campaigns; Howard Dean in 2004, Harry Reid in 2010, and the transformative campaigns Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. There are many takeaways but simply put, technology has forever changed the way that political campaigns are run.

Lets start by the way that politicians raise money. Howard Dean’s campaign thought it was amazing when they raised $5 million in a month. Then four years later Barack Obama raised so much money online ($500million) that he was able to forgo federal campaign funding. Interestingly, like all candidates in the half-century preceding him, Obama spent this money on television to woo the electorate. More interestingly, were the methods that the Obama campaign used to raise that money. While email was and is the most effective means, the Obama campaign pioneered testing of messages in email, testing of messages and style on their website, and the many features of Web 2.0 by democratizing campaign messages and allowing people the ability to create groups. The 2008 campaign was notable in the sense that while the candidate has a message, many other messages were created and disseminated by others. Furthermore, the campaign used technology to identify people who could be leaders in the field effort. They did this by using “Foot In the Door” a behavioral science concept in which someone seeks ever increasing levels of commitment. This campaign has become a textbook case for NGO’s looking to build brand and fundraising capability. It also presages the advances that were about to come.

The Harry Reid Senatorial campaign took the use of technology to new heights. Now instead of just raising money on the Internet, Reid’s campaign had sophisticated targeting tools to identify voter preferences send targeted messages to voters. This sophisticated approach used multiple voter-targeted messages at just the right time. Once identified these voters were sent the same message again and again. Similar to the Obama campaign, the approach was founded on the Web 2.0 idea that user generated data was king.

This was just a warm up for the reelection campaign for Obama in 2012. This campaign built on everything learned to date but added lots of new twists. These twists were primarily driven by big data. The Obama campaign had developed the ability to know how every voter was likely to vote and therefore was able to target the voters that they wanted to reach with the message that was best suited to achieve the desired result. The campaign had such good data that it was able to use targeted television advertising, something that had never been done before. The campaign used many methods to get this information from surveys, tracking emails, and in some cases working with cable TV companies to get user level information on viewing habits. Set top boxes were full of this information. The campaign also became proficient in using behavioral science to conduct randomized experiments, test different messages for the same issue, and perhaps most importantly use concepts such as goal planning and accountability to drive the get out the vote effort.

While this was great for the Obama campaign, it and the Reid campaign raised serious privacy issues. One can argue that the Obama campaign’s work around to obtain data from set top boxes was a clear violation of privacy. To me it seems like it is. Now instead of just telling my daughters to be careful online, I need to tell them to be careful of what they watch!!

As for the get out the vote effort, while any effort to get out the vote is laudable, I wonder (at the risk of reprising a previous blog) if we should take all of the lessons of the Obama campaign, especially those that originate in the behavioral science space and have a non-partisan get out the vote effort. Making potential voters feel that they are being held accountable and having them make a plan to vote have clear and statistically significant impact on increasing voter turnout. Maybe that could help mitigate the effects of all of the special interest money and help to level the playing field.

So while Ive got more things running around my head than at anytime in many a year, I am beginning to see themes and paths. Right now they are still many but as the year goes along, I am hopeful that Ill be able to make sense of it, choose a path, and have an impact.

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