Wireless Social Media Rewrites Election Rules

In late 2007, as the Democrats made final adjustments to their campaigns in preparation for the Iowa Caucus, Democrat Barack Obama was a third place candidate, behind John Edwards and Hilary Rodham Clinton.  After losing the Iowa Caucus, he was expected to fade into another also-ran.

To the surprise of pretty much everyone, that didn’t happen.  Obama went on to win Iowa.  How did he manage to beat two veteran campaigners, especially considering how much more money, influence and (apparent) support each had?  He had a secret weapon.

The gadget of choice in those days was the Blackberry smart-phone.  Obama had one.  So did thousands of his followers and, more importantly, his campaign team.  His team used mobile social media to talk to each other, to get a feel for what their supporters were concerned with and to get the message out about what their candidate stood for.  This type of campaigning was entirely new and it appealed greatly to a severely underrepresented demographic in elections: the young.  It drove people who not only normally didn’t vote, but didn’t even pay attention, to get involved.  Neither the Clinton nor the Edwards campaign had taken advantage of the new technology; neither had any of the Republican candidates.  The result was a huge surprise, probably even to the Obama team.

After winning Iowa, the Obama camp did something else unexpected.  They re-purposed their existing (and growing) network to send out an appeal for more money to fund their suddenly surging campaign.  This, again, was unexpectedly (and spectacularly) successful.  Obama had outflanked his opponents again.  Other candidates of all political stripes would try desperately to catch up, just as they would try to catch Obama up in the polls as the year wore on—all to no avail.

The 2008 federal election was the first one anywhere to be decided by Facebook and Twitter.  What does this mean for the future of politics in America, and around the world?

What’s Next?

Time rolls on and the march of technology waits for no one.  In the 2010 mid-term elections, more than half of those polled admitted to using the internet to get information as well as to get involved in the campaigns.  These numbers were impressive, especially for mid-term elections.  By this time, it wasn’t just the kids paying attention, either.  Almost as many 45 year-olds as twenty-somethings were surfing, blogging and pledging their support.

This was still only the beginning.  The trend to fully mobile internet access that started before the 2008 federal election was just picking up steam.  The explosion in both the quantity and variety of smart-phones was just the beginning.  Today there are net-books and tablet computers and things in between, like the Blackberry Playbook, that allow the full internet experience anywhere.  Equipped with 3G connectivity, either natively or through mobile internet sticks (for those with notebooks), these devices don’t rely on a Wi-Fi signal to stay connected.

For someone running an election campaign, both the increased online presence of the electorate and the increasing mobility of the internet is a Godsend.  It means that, no matter where they are, they can keep track of what the voters are thinking, what the important issues are and what questions potential supporters are asking.  Not only that, campaigners can come up with thoughtful, well-researched answers to those questions almost as they are posed, reducing a turnaround that might have taken days—and cost a lot of money.

In fact, having a largely virtual campaign means saving tremendous amounts of money on almost everything from prime time national ad campaigns on television, radio and print media to lawn signs.  This means that smaller candidates with much more limited budgets are no longer at a disadvantage compared to their well-funded competitors.  Consequently, as we’ve seen in 2008 and 2010, these smaller candidates are doing much better.

What’s the Future Look Like?

We’re already seeing the end of the hit-or-miss style of campaigning of past elections.  Targeting the right voter with the right message used to be a time consuming process that wasn’t very efficient.  The problem was getting up-to-date data on potential voters—and keeping it up-to-date.  It took months to build a database of potential voters’ views and voting trends.

Flash forward and a completely different picture emerges.  Mobile computers, like tablets and net-books, and software that integrates names and addresses with programs like Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare—in real time—eliminates the need for all that work.  The guy knocking on your door to sell you on his client not only knows whether or not you’re likely to vote, but what the odds are that you’ll vote for his candidate.  (Hint:  he wouldn’t be standing outside your door if he had any serious doubts about your likely choice).  In fact, if you’ve posted it on your Facebook page, he likely already knows what your friends call you—and even your favorite color.