20th Mar 2018

US 2012 - A digital campaign for a digital age

Whether it is food, sport or politics, Americans don't do small scale.

Indeed, American political parties were the first to establish rapid rebuttal units, responsible for instantly checking and refuting accusations made against them, and for pioneering political advertising, particularly the attack ad. Politics in the US is not just highly disciplined and professional - it is a billion dollar industry in itself, and a successful one at that.

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  • American political parties have pioneered digital campaigning (Photo: European Commission)

Since the 1960s, when political campaigning became professionalised, politicians and strategists from Europe have flocked to the US every four years and come back with new ideas. In Britain, Tony Blair's 'New Labour' project, particularly its approach to media handling, was based on the Clinton Democrats. The advisors who ran the party's media campaign and strategy in 1997 had all cut their teeth on the US campaign trail.

Political campaigning in the US has always been the best funded and most innovative. In 1964 the Democrats broadcast the notorious "Daisy" advert which featured a young girl picking the petals of a daisy before a voice-over implied that Republican candidate Barry Goldwater would unleash nuclear war if elected. The ad was only aired once but had the desired effect of scaring the electorate and planting the idea of Goldwater as a war-mongering extremist. It also provided the template for the modern attack ad.

The 2012 presidency was the most expensive election in history. Factoring in the money raised by the privately-organised Super PACs, the two camps spent an estimated $6 billion between them. Of this, a mere $700 million was spent on bombarding Americans with over 1 million television adverts across ten swing states.

It is not just the presidential candidates who amass multi-million dollar campaign largesse. Congressmen do too and, as incumbents, are usually able to raise far more money dialling for dollars than their challengers.

But it would be a mistake to think that political campaigning in the US is all about the money and winning the media war.

The two branches of the American Crossroads Super-PAC organised by Republican election Svengali Karl Rove spent over $170 million on 47 candidates in federal election races. Only ten of them won. So does it work?

It is not clear that it does. In part this is because the vast majority of adverts are negative and aimed more at scaring people than changing their minds. Robert Winston, the conservative-leaning director of the Winston polling company, told this website that "political ads are not answering the questions people are asking."

There is also the 'saturation' effect. Unless you had switched off your television and radio for the last 18 months, it would have been impossible to avoid the election. By election day on 6 November many voters had had enough.

The other point is that political debate in the American media has become increasingly polarised, in part as a by-product of the glut of negative advertising. What little dispassionate political analysis on public broadcasting networks there is, is drowned out by the likes of Fox news on the right and MSNBC on the left. Winston says that the "media contributes to a negative perception of political discourse."

So if dominating the airwaves has become a blunter tool, with advertising spending more akin to an arms race in which neither side is prepared to blink first, what has changed?

In the 2008 election campaign Barack Obama changed the participatory style of elections. Rather than focusing merely on big donations from businesses and unions, he went after small personal donations. By polling day, 6.5 million donations averaging $80 each from over 3 million individuals added up to over $500 million, not to mention reams of priceless email addresses and contact details. He did the same in 2012, with over 10 million individual donations. In the first term of his presidency the Obama campaign put together an email list of 13 million potential supporters by pooling personal data acquired from Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.

One new innovation in 2012 was the Democrats' creation of the online canvassing programme Dashboard, which allowed data collected on the campaign trail to be synchronised with other information from across the 50 states, making it easy for volunteers to interact with each other, and appreciate their value to the campaign, while also giving strategists an instant overview of the campaign on the ground.

The success of Dashboard was just one of the advantages the Obama campaign held over Romney. For example, with only six months to go after scraping through a tough primary, Romney had a digital media team of about 120. Floridian political pundit Rob Lorei told EUobserver that Obama had a 50 person digital team in Florida alone.

This year was the first truly 'social media' election with millions of tweets sent during the party conventions and the presidential debates, but it was won by the 'ground game'. The Obama campaign focused their attention on around ten closely fought states. In Ohio, the ultimate bellwether state, Obama had over 100 well-staffed campaign offices. Despite nearly matching the President in terms of fundraising, Mitt Romney could number only 30. Even in North Carolina, the one swing state that Romney narrowly won, the Obama ground machine was over twice the size of his. Not that the Romney camp.

In terms of voter contacts, the Republicans were also overmatched. The Romney campaign team made over 50 million contacts with voters through phone calls, email and home visits. Obama amassed over 125 million, several million higher than the number of Americans who actually voted.

The Obama campaign registered nearly 1.8 million voters in the battleground states and focused on getting their supporters to vote in advance of polling day. According to the "Building a ground game for 270" paper produced by Democrat strategists, Obama had built up such a lead from early voting that Romney needed to take 55 percent of the vote in Florida and Ohio, 58 percent in Nevada, 59 percent in Iowa and Colorado and 65 percent in North Carolina. Aside from North Carolina, Obama swept them all.

So what can European parties learn from the 2012 Presidential race?

The challenge for European political parties is to enthuse their supporters and activists - an already difficult task made harder by the economic strait-jacket of budget cuts.

However, the US faces the same problems of high debts and deficits, high unemployment and weak economic growth. The main story in the Presidential campaign was how to make a $6 billion campaign matter to individual voters and activists.

Any European party able to run a digital campaign for a digital age and break from the sterile debate of austerity-lite vs. austerity-plus, will reap the rewards.

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