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Letter from the Editor

On Politics and Technology

  • This letter appeared in the January/February 2013 issue.
  • by Jason Pontin
  • January 2, 2013

“Few events in American life other than a presidential election touch 126 million adults, or even a significant fraction that many, on a single day,” writes Sasha Issenberg in “A More Perfect Union,” the definitive explanation of the part technology played in the 2012 election. Americans care about elections because, in the absence of much opportunity for direct democracy, they are how citizens participate in the representative government of the republic.

But the electoral techniques of both parties have tended to diminish the active participation of citizens. Joe Trippi, a longtime Democratic political operative, writes about his unhappy experiences in a prologue to Issenberg’s narrative. In the last weeks of California’s 1982 gubernatorial election, pollsters told the campaign of Mayor Tom ­Bradley, the Democratic candidate, to divert $2 million from get-out-the-vote operations to television advertising. Bradley lost. “Decisions like this were made in campaign after campaign, within both parties, for the next 30 years,” Trippi says. “Television won every time. Poll-driven television ads sucked the heart and soul out of politics without much challenge.”

Yet, Trippi writes, “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.” The application of Internet technologies during the 2004 and 2008 elections, and the use of data analytics and experimental methods from the social sciences in the 2012 election, have transformed the way campaigns mobilize their supporters and sway the persuadable. In the future, these techniques will change how administrations govern.

This story is part of our January/February 2013 Issue
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In Issenberg’s account, the combination of analytics and experimentation won President Barack Obama reëlection. He writes that the techniques “enabled a presidential candidate to view the electorate the way local candidates do: as a collection of people … each of them approachable on his or her own terms, their changing levels of support and enthusiasm open to measurement and, thus, to respect.” Obama 2012 was a community organizer’s local ward campaign played on a national stage. Romney 2012, by contrast, never had the resources or, finally, the understanding to run such a campaign. Trippi quotes a dejected Republican campaign staffer: “We weren’t even running in the same race.”

Trippi and Issenberg see the new methods mostly as forces for good. But another, less Panglossian opinion suggests itself. Both campaigns (but especially the president’s) spoke with admirable efficiency and unfaltering discipline to some people: those in electorally important states who had voted for their party’s candidate in the last election, or who could be moved to vote for their party’s candidate in this election, or who could be lured from their natural party to vote for the other party’s candidate. Neither candidate spoke to the whole nation, despite the periodic insistence of both that the 2012 presidential election constituted a clear “choice.” The election was not noted for any great debate about the future of the country, despite the tremendous challenges the new administration will face (see our letter to the president). Throughout, I felt sure the Founders, who abhorred party “faction,” would have been shocked—not by the wizardry of our technologies but, rather, by the smallness of our concerns and the dishonesty of our arguments.

But write to me at jason.pontin@technologyreview.com and tell me what you think.

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