We live in the best of times for political persuasion: campaigns have more data then ever before. They use that data to target, target, and refine.
We live in the worst of times for political persuasion: the old pipelines for reaching a persuadable audience — television, landline phones, and mail — are growing rusty from disuse.
This is the big takeaway from journalist Andrew Rice in his feature article, “How Far Can Political Technology Reach?” It’s excellent writing, I strongly recommend it to you.
Here’s the key passage in Rice’s article:
THE INNOVATORS ARE always working around a central irony: The very advances that make it possible to know so much about voters also make them more difficult to reach. A DVR records your viewing habits, but it also allows you to fast-forward through the standard 30-second campaign spot. Spam filters are rising; network audience numbers are falling. It takes plenty of invention just to counteract the relentless force of media entropy.
I remember noticing this same trend when I was interviewing nonprofit direct mail professionals for The MoveOn Effect. I heard two countervailing reports, often from the same individuals: (1) Prospect Direct Mail has become more efficient than ever. With more data and better modeling, organizations could do a much better job of building an initial mailing list. The days of blind list swaps are over; now we can fine-tune and microtarget. (2) Prospect Direct Mail is in its death throes. People under 55 don’t pay bills through the mail anymore. Response rates are so low that mail will inevitably switch from profit center to resource drain.
We see this same Dickensian pattern in polling: we’re living through a veritable revolution in modeling and aggregation techniques, all while response rates dip into the single digits.
And, as Rice reports, we see it in television and online ads. He quotes NationBuilder founder Jim Gilliam:
“The stuff I am extremely skeptical of is this idea that we can turn data into ad campaigns and magically turn people into voters,” says Jim Gilliam. “That’s not real.”
Now, all of this isn’t to say that technology in campaigns doesn’t matter. It matters a great deal! It matters for how campaigns are run. It matters for who gets rich off of them. It matters for how they engage (or don’t engage) citizens.*
And it also matters for who gets elected. The sum total of all the testing, targeting, and refinement may only be a couple percentage points at the polls, but in the deeply polarized country we live in, those couple percentage points decide the balance of power.
Still, the point of this blog post is that (a) Andrew Rice’s article is really good, you should read it, and (b) he captures this balancing act better than most.
Viewed in isolation, the rise of testing and microtargeting can seem all-powerful, even ominous. Much of the journalism on the subject has a tendency towards alchemy or mysticism: “these new campaign pros have math! All bow before them…”
Viewed as a whole, the evolving industry looks much more like the Red Queen’s Race. “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”