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How Technology Has Restored the Soul of Politics

Longtime political operative Joe Trippi cheers the innovations of Obama 2012, saying they restored the primacy of the individual voter.
December 18, 2012

In 1979, I was an aeronautical-engineering major at San Jose State University, sneaking time in the laser lab to make holograms or running over to the computer lab in the middle of the night to try my hand at IBM punch cards and Fortran. In between classes and on weekends, I volunteered in local political campaigns and thought of changing my major to political science. I was 23 years old and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. What would change people’s lives more, I thought: technology or politics?

Technology seemed full of promise yet somehow soulless. Heart and soul was what I found when I volunteered. So, late in 1979, I got in my car, leaving my most prized possession—a Tandy TRS-80 microcomputer—with a friend, and drove to Iowa to become a $15-a-day field organizer for Ted Kennedy’s campaign for president.

In Iowa, the Kennedy team was harnessing the most advanced technology then available to a presidential campaign: the telephone call combined with meticulous use of three-by-five index cards. A paid phone bank would call registered Democrats and independents and ask them whom they intended to vote for in the upcoming Iowa caucuses. An index card would be created with the voter’s name, address, and phone number—and a code number for the person’s answer to that one question, handwritten on the card. A “1” meant the voter was for Kennedy; “2” that the voter was leaning to Kennedy; “3” that a voter was undecided. Worst was “4”: it meant the voter was supporting our opponent, the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter. When newly minted Kennedy organizers like me arrived in Iowa, we were told what county we would be organizing—and were handed shoeboxes of index cards that had been coded.

From that point you did whatever you thought worked. If some line of argument moved an undecided “3” in your candidate’s direction, you kept using that argument; but there wasn’t much of a way to tell other organizers you had stumbled on a persuasive message. You called any updated code numbers in to your assigned regional headquarters every night. You never learned what it did with them.

Until the Obama 2012 campaign, none of this got much better as time wore on. The three-by-five card would give way to computer-generated printouts over time, but the basic coding system in politics stayed the same. Worse, at the time I joined politics, campaigns were starting to invest less and less in field organization and voter contact. Television ads were growing in importance, and even as early as the 1980 presidential campaign, resources were being taken away from meeting and talking with voters at their doors and redirected toward reaching those same voters with 30-second spots in their living rooms. As a consequence, politics started to lose its soul, which is the active participation of ordinary voters in elections.

In 1982 I was Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley’s deputy campaign manager when he sought the governorship of California. I tried to talk the campaign into buying a PDP-series computer from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to use in targeting our direct-mail fund-raising appeals and running our voter identification data and get-out-the-vote targets. No one had installed a computer for a political campaign before, and my colleagues didn’t want to risk money on an untested idea. I took my life savings, bought the machine myself, and installed it on my own. We used it to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from direct mail, and we built an enormous database of California voters for targeting our field operations.

We had the data: we knew which voters were wholly ours and which were less likely to turn out without our effort. And we had budgeted $2 million for our get-out-the-vote organization.

A few weeks before Election Day, our polling showed that we had slipped behind our Republican opponent, George ­Deukmejian. Our pollster told us that unless the campaign spent another $2 million on statewide television, we would lose. Suddenly, all our targeting and voter identification was for naught: the campaign took the $2 million we had set aside for getting out the vote and bet it all on television ads.

On election night, I had the DEC PDP look at our data and the data from the California Secretary of State’s Office as precincts reported. All three broadcast television networks declared Bradley the winner on the basis of exit polls. But the computer didn’t blink; within minutes of the polls closing, it belched out a projection that Bradley would lose by 100,000 votes. Months later, when the final results were in, it would turn out that we lost by about 93,000 votes—roughly three votes per precinct.

“Technology has given politics back its soul.”

Decisions like this were made in campaign after campaign, within both parties, for the next 30 years. Television won every time. Poll-driven television ads sucked the heart and soul out of politics without much challenge. But during the very years that politics stagnated, technology evolved to allow people to share ideas and stories or sell and buy things from each other in ways that really improved their lives. By late 2002, political professionals from both sides of the political spectrum believed that it might be possible to take on the top-down, money-driven, television-ad-centric approach to politics and instead use technology to build a bottom-up, people-centered politics.

The 2004 presidential bid of Howard Dean, the former governor of Vermont, attracted former McCain 2000 staffers, old Kennedy hands, activists from both parties, and ordinary people from across the country who wanted to build a different kind of political campaign: one that would empower people to organize themselves. They hoped to return grassroots activism to the political process and encourage people to participate actively in politics instead of watching it on TV as consumers. The campaign also drew me: I was its campaign manager.

The Dean campaign was a great, pioneering effort, but it happened too soon. In 2003, there were 55 million households in the United States with Internet access, but broadband was rare, and neither YouTube nor Facebook nor Twitter yet existed. The iPhone, the first popular smartphone, would not be released until 2007. The Dean campaign would break President Bill Clinton’s fund-raising records and build a nationwide organization of 650,000 people, more than had joined any previous presidential campaign; but it would take one more presidential campaign cycle for the rocket engines of social networks to benefit from the fuel of broadband and provide sufficient thrust for the new model to reach escape velocity.

By 2007, Americans had begun participating in politics in numbers no one had imagined possible. TV ads would have almost nothing to do with Barack Obama’s election, although more would be spent on them than ever before. ­Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination for the simple reason that she ran an old-fashioned campaign. But Obama’s victory in 2008 was remarkable not only because he raised a half-billion dollars online and had over 13 million people sign on to his campaign. His win in 2008 was most remarkable because it allowed his campaign staff to do something truly novel in 2012: build a national campaign armed with big data.

As Sasha Issenberg describes at length in “A More Perfect Union,” big data gave Obama 2012 the names of all 69 million people who voted for the candidate in 2008 and allowed the campaign to rebuild that winning coalition, vote by vote. Big data told the campaign which voters were undecided, and even which voters with otherwise Republican attitudes could be swayed to vote for the president. The campaign spent over $100 million developing the biggest network of people in political history. Millions of Americans heard from other Americans about issues that mattered to them. Those conversations were more powerful than the billions of dollars spent on TV ads. It requires no hyperbole to say that Obama 2012 changed everything.

Mitt Romney’s campaign and its allies made the same mistake Hillary Clinton made in 2008: they ran a top-down campaign preoccupied with buying television ads and influencing the media. As a professional political strategist, I was surprised: I didn’t think anyone would try it again. But the GOP didn’t understand the new politics, and the election was a rout. One dejected Romney staffer said after the election, “We weren’t even running in the same race.”

For several reasons, the Republican Party may struggle to catch up. First, it is woefully behind in building a national network. Second, the GOP is unloved by a key demographic group it will need: the technically educated, creative young people who like to build software and do data analysis. Finally, there is something about Republican top-down message discipline that discourages the party’s members from letting go a little and allowing a grassroots organization to grow. The most successful popular conservative movement of recent years, the Tea Party, distrusts the Republican establishment almost as much as it dislikes Democrats.

But the outstanding fact of the 2012 election is that the pollsters, consultants, advisors, and political gatekeepers who guarded the old way of doing politics lost bigger than Mitt ­Romney or the Republican Party itself. There is perhaps no human activity where power is so jealously protected as it is in professional politics. The old guard will try to demonstrate its usefulness for a few more elections, and some will doubtless adapt. But its dominance has passed. The 23-year-old organizers who listen to people, and work with campaigns to measure the persuasive effectiveness of different messages, will be knocking on doors in the midterm elections and in the presidential election of 2016.

Will the methods that won an election be used for governance? During President Obama’s first term in office, his administration did not effectively use Organizing for America (the community network the Democratic National Committee created after the 2008 victory) to mobilize support for his legislative agenda. But as I write, the network is asking Americans to pressure Congress to pass the president’s debt proposals. Second-term presidents may not be so lame with big data and a large network of supporters.

All these changes in democratic politics will be profound, although not all the consequences will be good. New technologies can manipulate, empower, or do both. There will be plenty of actors in both politics and business who will use the innovations of the Obama 2012 campaign as tools to manipulate people. But for me, right now, it feels as if technology has empowered people and given politics back its soul.

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