Politics: Persuasion and Digital Organizing

This post assesses Get Out The Vote (GOTV) efforts, digital organizing, and persuasion, as part of my work for DPI-659: Media, Politics, and Power at the Kennedy School. It draws on the following readings: Jon-David Schlough et al.’s “Persuasion Points Online: Helping Harry Reid, One Click at a Time” (2011), Kevin Wallsten’s “‘Yes We Can’: How Online Viewership, Blog Discussion, Campaign Statements, and Mainstream Media Coverage Produced a Viral Video Phenomenon” (2010), Zack Exley’s “The New Organizers, What’s really behind Obama’s ground game” (2008), Seth Colter Walls’s “Neighbor To Neighbor: How Obama Targets Undecideds Block By Block” (2008), Sasha Issenberg’s “How President Obama’s campaign used big data to rally individual voters” (2012), as well as two Harvard Business School case studies on Organizing for America and Obama versus Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

Big data has allowed political campaigns to “nano-target” voters, predicting behavior down to the individual, rather than just among particular demographics. Bolstered by significant resources, Schlough et al. used big data to their advantage in Harry Reid’s 2010 re-election campaign, and were ultimately successful. They argue that a digital strategy can be persuasive, particularly when layered with other more traditional media methods such as TV ads. Issenberg’s piece on the Obama campaign’s use of data analytics to predict voting behavior in 2008 and (especially) 2012 paints a similar picture, in which campaigns leverage data to target the long tail of voters and win.

Beyond the use of data analytics to forecast voting patterns, tech played a critical role in the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns’ efforts to mobilize volunteers in the field, register people to vote, and, on election day, get those people to the polls. My.BarackObama.com (“MyBO”), modeled after social networking sites, was critical to organizing and motivating supporters, from providing them with a point system to reward activity to allowing them to form groups (Reed’s Law in action). As Exley describes, volunteers went through a rigorous recruitment and training process, but were rewarded with real roles and responsibilities. The field campaign’s motto of “Respect. Empower. Include.” was critical to cementing relationships and a culture of professionalism on the campaign. Having the MyBO online community further reinforced supporters’ sense of purpose and shared belief in Obama. Combining the strong organizing mechanism of Obama for America with the data analytics noted above creates the phenomenon Walls describes, in which volunteers in battleground states walked throughout “their own neighborhoods the weekend before election day [and] could then feed back their data [to headquarters] on the last remaining undecideds in close to real time.”

Reflecting on both the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns’ effective use of technology to mobilize supporters, I wonder how such a strategy could effectively translate into other dimensions of the political sphere (e.g. passing a particular bill). Obama’s decision to transform Obama for America into “Organizing for America” or “OFA” (now known as “Organizing for Action“) was clearly a step in this direction. But OFA’s impact and reach are limited. It has largely failed to turn the energy of the two campaigns into support for Obama’s agenda as President.

While I originally saw OFA’s under-whelming performance as a reflection of people’s limited energy and attention for political causes (and post-campaign burnout), I now also think it is closely linked to Obama’s ability as a President to clearly and faithfully deliver to the grassroots in measurable ways–a constraint due in large part to the nature of our political system. With Shirky’s “promise, tool, bargain” framework in mind, I can imagine supporters getting behind Obama’s promise of action on a particular issue (for instance, gun violence), but then being disappointed and perhaps confused when he’s unable to deliver, that is, when the bargain breaks down and the promise suddenly feels hollow. Obama as President has to be careful in making his goals into promises, as they depend on so many other actors, particularly Congress. OFA’s web site currently features gun violence as an issue that Americans care about and are fighting for, yet it’s a promise on which Obama has not been able to deliver. The site lets visitors sign on to a petition to Congress to reduce gun violence, but is not linked to current legislation, a timeline, or a tangible outcome, weakening the bargain.

If re-mobilizing the support from Obama’s campaigns to put toward his legislative agenda has somewhat flopped, then I wonder whether it can be realistically sustained for issues that persist beyond an election cycle or beyond a country’s borders, such as global warming. While there have been major transnational efforts to urge governments to take action on climate change (including digital organizing, e.g. 350), we have only a partial (and largely insufficient) international regime to address the challenges posed by a warming planet. Digital organizing around climate change has had some major successes in terms of visibility and awareness, but it’s been unable to get us closer to a solution commensurate with the problem. The timeline for international action is also longer than that of a U.S. political campaign, potentially leading to burnout. 350’s successful organizing around one day demonstrates the power of a concrete timeline in spurring people to action (similar to an election day). However, until the promise to effectively address climate change, and the accompanying tool and bargain for doing so, are made between (and among) citizens and governments, progress on climate change will continue to stall.


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