Catalyst Campaign’s founder, Scott Goodstein, writes on the evolution of digital technology for modern political campaigns for the academic series Campaigns & Elections American Style 6th Edition. These books have been on the cutting edge of the evolving field of campaign management by some of the best Democratic & Republican practitioners of US elections. Scott Goodstein stated, “I have enjoyed reading and learning from these books over the years and am honored to participate and add to the knowledge base of information for the next generation.”
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How Digital Changed the Political Landscape — Chapter 10 — Campaigns & Elections American Style 6th Edition
My first big break in politics came in 1994 while working on a statewide federal election campaign in the state where I was born and raised, Ohio. The campaign had been using the facsimile machine for breaking news, but their approach to manually dialing up each media outlet was tedious and time-consuming. I became a valuable asset to the press team when I programmed the fax to blast critical announcements to multiple reporters simultaneously, saving the campaign countless hours and ensuring my job security.
I eventually moved on to other races where I saw how new technology, combined with a little creativity, could give campaigns a competitive advantage. In 1995, Ron Wyden’s special US Senate race in Oregon was the first vote-by-mail campaign[i] in the nation, and I joined their month-long Get Out the Vote (GOTV) field program.
Unfortunately, in 1995, not every campaign office possessed powerful computers that could link to a centralized voter file and fast, high-capacity printers. So, Wyden’s campaign instead created a patchwork operation that included using powerful computers in the central Portland headquarters for printouts of targeted voters that were then shipped to field offices via the daily Greyhound bus routes. While seemingly rudimentary, this represented a new efficient way of campaigning and paved the way for today’s voter-targeting canvassing mobile apps that are now built directly into each political party’s voter file. It is a quick reminder that web-based campaigning has only existed for a few election cycles.
By the 2000 election cycle, cell phones, Palm Pilots, and Blackberry devices were becoming the technology of choice for all political operatives. However, the Internet was still developing. It took a few more years before online event tools like MeetUp.com and payment gateways — the e-commerce applications by which credit card donations can be authorized — would be secure enough to power Howard Dean’s web-based presidential primary campaign.[ii] His team built the first truly functional modern campaign website[iii] and laid the foundation for Barack Obama’s campaign to take full advantage of the boom of social media and advancing mobile technologies.
I had the honor of creating some of the first political online profiles on popular third-party social networks like Myspace, Facebook, BlackPlanet, and Twitter, as my colleagues built out our own social network, MyBarackObama.com, a suite of fundraising software to facilitate thousands of virtual events.
That said, not all modern technological inventions have been used for advancing democracy and increasing turnout. The Obama campaign used text messaging (SMS) and interactive voice response (IVR) to encourage more voters to turn out and find their early vote locations and helped usher in the rise of big data (voter file-based targeting and sophisticated voter modeling) in 2012.[iv] But we also witnessed the targeting of voters with nefarious text message spam, giving us a sneak peek into how misleading information could proliferate electronically.[v] Indeed, one cycle later in 2016, Donald Trump would use Twitter to spread untruths, eventually leading to his tweets being flagged by Twitter in 2020 for not adhering to their rules around “false or misleading information”.[vi]
It is hard to tell what the next wave of technology will mean for political campaigns. Advances in decentralized blockchain are evolving into what is being called Web3.[vii] The Federal Election Committee (FEC) approved bitcoin back in 2014[viii] it took until the 2020 campaign cycle before a presidential candidate accepted cryptocurrency,[ix] and until the 2022 elections before a national party committee accepted cryptocurrency contributions.[x] Unfortunately[sg1] [sg2] , cryptocurrency was unstable during most of the 2022 cycle, so these new technologies have still not proven effective or scalable for political campaigns in the US… yet!
Regardless, we may look back at the current technology used by campaigns as slow and as archaic as we view fax machines today.
This chapter will look at how the different advances in digital technology align with the fundamental elements of political campaigning and give examples of how they have helped change the political landscape.
This is an excerpt from Scott Goodstein, founder & CEO of Catalyst Campaigns, chapter on “How Digital Changed the Political Landscape” for Campaigns and Elections American Style 6th Edition.