Recent trends suggest that technology is not an add-on to campaigns. Rather, it is a carefully integrated strategy.
Hasna Maznavi lives in Cerritos, California. She has been a proud Obama supporter since 2008, but felt she wanted to do more, so she joined the countless volunteers in Las Vegas helping the Obama for America (OFA) campaign this year.
She saw a Facebook status update that one of her friends was volunteering, and jumped at the opportunity. Maznavi, worried by the polls, feared that Obama would lose.
“I get a lot of my views from Facebook, it’s like the constant ticker that you see on news channels,” says Maznavi. “But here its from my friends and more pertinent to what I want to see.”
A UC Berkley undergraduate from USC film school, Maznavi is not new to social media.
Maznavi says that social media isn’t playing as crucial of a role as it did in 2008. “I feel part of what makes things pop in social media is how memorable, new and exciting things are. This time around its not Obama 2008, when things were viral.”
Maznavi is correct in her perception. Unlike traditional campaigning methods, the Obama campaign integrated technology into their central strategy.
For the first time, what campaigns did on social media were making headlines. The Obama campaign rewarded its twitter followers with the Vice Presidential announcement on the very platform.
On the other hand, John McCain announced in an interview that he hadn’t even used a computer, let alone sent an email himself.
This technology gap reflects how voters see candidates and how campaigns place value on technology in their campaigns.
Obama was writing a lesson in the art of social media driven politics in 2008.
What was unique about this was that when swing state voters joined the Barack Obama Facebook group, the campaign would follow up to ask them to knock on doors or donate to the campaign.
Now in 2012, social media has become a norm in presidential, congressional and senate campaigns. However, the role of technology is dramatically developing still.
According to Timothy Murphy at Mother Jones, the 2012 Presidential candidates approach to technology is polar opposite. Whereas Romney has outsourced all his technology to consulting firms, President Obama has worked to keep all of the data compiling in house.
Obama’s campaign is “assembl[ing] a data-mining infrastructure that allows the campaign to determine which voters to target and how to do it on a scale and scope that's never been seen before. It's part of a new, data-driven shift in the way campaigns are run. Think of it as the smart campaign.” This type of data mining allows for “micro targeting” of voters.
In an age where there are ‘off the grid’ voters, roughly 30 percent don’t watch enough television to be swayed by political commercials. But they can be specifically targeted by campaigns based on the information extracted from the mined social media data.
In fact, according to Murphy, the OFA team expanded the Democratic Party's voter data by a factor of 10, accruing 223 million new pieces of information regarding supporters, in the last leg the campaign.
This has allowed OFA fundraising emails to be catered to individuals, up to no less than 11 different variations of emails going out each time.
The Obama campaign makes it clear that technology and social media strategies are integral to its platform.
One does not need to look farther than the “Get Out the Vote” campaign in Nevada.
Nevada, estimated to have the fastest growing Asian American population in the country, is home to Faisal Soboh, a psychiatrist of South Asian descent. He has lived in swing state for 7 years.
Between 6 P.M. and 9 P.M. at night, Soboh’s phone rings at least half a dozen times, with five of the calls from the Presidential campaign.
Soboh says, “Between the phone calls from campaigns, advertisements and the constant news coverage, there is no refuge, even on the internet. Its everywhere, even people knocking on my door.”
Soboh voted early for President Obama and was largely motivated by the healthcare overhaul.
Among the volunteer callers and knockers, OFA has been actively bringing in volunteers from states like California because one major influencer in voter turnout is mobilization – being enlisted to register to vote and solicited to participate on Election Day.
American Asian, Pacific Islanders for Obama (AAPI) has actively organized such mobilization efforts in the AAPI community.
Liz Singh, a Canadian citizen, is volunteering in Los Angeles where she works at Ineffable as a Creative Executive. Singh says that while she cannot vote for President Obama, this election directly impacts her because she is living without health insurance.
Singh joined the OFA campaign after seeing her friends on Facebook sign up. She says that she was motivated by the idea that being South Asian, she could influence other South Asians to come out and vote.
“I hope that being out there showing support will help people on the sidelines to get supportive. Activism is about showing people that they already have the power. I feel that I participated and I did something.”
While national campaigns have integrated social media and are exploring the use of technology in data-mining and micro-targeting, local campaigns struggle with developing a basic strategy because it’s too costly to implement for many of these races.
“Social media and technology wont replace old methods, it’s to supplement traditional campaigns by engaging supporters to get your message out” says Nick Anas, the Executive Director of the Democratic party of Orange County, who has worked on campaigns since 2008.
He believes that most politicians don’t understand technology and therefore are not effectively utilizing its full potential.
Anas described traditional methods of campaign for school boards, city council and state assembly seats, being time intensive and financially expedient. These include setting up yard signs, mailers, phone calling, knocking on doors as well as town halls.
Candidates struggle to access print advertisements in newspapers, television or radio spots because of financial constraints, and according to Anas, most often, their races don’t attract the attention in order to get free media coverage.
“Potential voters are your traditional voters, and often times not minority communities,” says Anas. “Social media therefore offers free marketing opportunities when utilized properly. These tools are faster ways of engaging in a rapid response to issues, but also getting to harder to reach communities.”
A significant problem with integrating technology and social media in smaller races is that there isn’t a standard playbook for candidates.
In smaller races candidates exclusively use one social medium and use it to post up press releases without engaging with people.
“Social media, it’s a laboratory, that is public but can be a way to experiment with messaging and testing to see how the message is resonating in the community via responses,” says Anas.
Anu Natarajan is running for Mayor of Fremont, California. If elected, she would be the city’s first Indian-American Mayor. She contracted with a consulting firm to help create a social media strategy for her campaign, which she has been experimenting with.
Natarajan has been involved with the Reviving California Initiative at the American Leadership Forum in Silicone Valley. The initiative's mission is to bring together demonstrated leaders to explore process of collaborative leadership that can strengthen their capacity to address public issues through technology.
She represents a new breed of politicians that have embraced social media and technology.
“Social media is instantaneous and often times incredibly fast paced, but messages get to potential voters instantaneously and directly,” says Natarajan on her social media strategy in relations to her campaign.
The website and emails essentially serves as a static base where people can see what campaigns are doing. Natarajan believes that combined with traditional campaigning, the campaign money is stretched further.
But critical to her campaign is that voters can use social media to get conversations going with candidates. In reverse, candidates can personally ask their base for for donations or volunteering for campaigns.
“There is so much potential with social media, exploring and using electronic town halls and using different ways to engage people in the community” said Natarajan. “How do you get people to get engaged and involved form the comfort of their home when they can’t drive out or have other responsibilities? Social media use in campaigns in invaluable and inevitable.”