catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Political campaigning — Back to the grassroots?

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For years political parties have relied on the media to get their message to voters. Free media coverage and advertising have been the backbone of large scale campaigns. But now, using databases and direct marketing techniques, campaigners can bypass the mass media and reach swing voters directly. According to William Rees-Mogg, Britain’s Conservative Party saved itself from a crushing defeat by using its Voter Vault database to identify floating voters and then making contact using call centres and direct mail:

This development will inevitably continue. It will centralise the election process still further, in terms of propaganda, organisation and funding; general elections will become even more presidential. This may not be welcome, because it will further centralise politics, but it is as inevitable as the rise of Google or the victory of Tesco over the corner shop. It will also make money increasingly important for election success.

By narrowing down the number of voters contacted, it’s possible to spend more per contact. Voters can receive calls, letters and emails that focus on the issues they care about. Candidates no longer need to rely on one-size-fits-all advertising and media messages.

As Rees-Mogg suggests, this will make the party’s head office and its access to donors much more important. Only a large well-funded organisation can afford the specialised tools and skilled staff needed to make sense of the vast quantities of data involved. And the amount of data involved is vast as journalist Jon Gertner explains:

While specifics vary, a typical voter profile like my own, for instance, would show my age, address, phone numbers; which elections I’ve voted in over the past 10 or 15 years and whether I’ve ever voted on an absentee ballot; and my e-mail address. It would include my New Jersey party registration (Democrat), whether I’ve ever made a political donation (none that I recall), my approximate income, my ethnicity, my marital status and the number of children living in my house. Thanks to the ready availability of subscriber lists, mortgage data and product warranty information, the parties might use records of the newspapers I read (this one), the computer I work on (a Macintosh), the men’s-wear catalogs I receive (Brooks Brothers, Land’s End) and the loan-to-value ratio of my home.

The common practice of nonprofit groups sharing mailing lists with like-minded organizations would almost certainly provide them with useful information about the charities I favor and the civic groups I’m affiliated with. And with the help of polling (done by phone), canvassing (a lengthy ”Democratic Leadership Survey” just arrived in the mail yesterday) or simple inferences (Sierra Club mailings scream ”environmentalist”), the parties could divine my likely views on taxes, law enforcement, abortion and global warming.

According to Peter Swire, professor of law at Ohio State University, this will make it harder to for voters to know what a candidate or party really stands for:

… We used to worry that politicians would talk out of both sides of their mouth. Now maybe they’re talking out of 50 sides of their mouth. Why? Because now we’ve got the demographic groups cut up so finely that the messages are going out to very different groups in very different ways. We’re having a separation of what politicians are saying to different parts of the American people.

Of course as Gertner says "This doesn’t mean that the old-fashioned excitement about a contender no longer matters. Momentum, message, money and an army of volunteers remain the engines of any campaign." But it does mean that far more of the campaign will take place outside of the gaze of the mass media. For political bloggers who want to do more than snarky comments about media stories or vent their own opinions it probably means digging up these disparate messages and bringing them together in one place.

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Written by Admin

January 2, 2006 at 4:26 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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