Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and rival candidate U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders speak simultaneously at the NBC News - YouTube Democratic presidential candidates debate in Charleston, South Carolina January 17, 2016. 
Randall Hill / Reuters

The sheer scope of electoral competition in the United States provides fertile ground for consultants offering the newest or most effective tools that can win a competitive race. Indeed, the large number of well-funded potential clients explains why the business of politics is so much larger in the United States than in other democratic nations. The origins of the political consulting industry in the United States has shaped the nature of elections, as well as the broader features of the U.S. political system. Efforts to better understand the dispositions and intentions of the voting public can create innovative campaign techniques that challenge existing conceptions of political intelligence and advice. Just as the advent of radio, polling, or television has influenced how politics work in the United States, digital campaign tools in the form of Internet advertising or data analytics have also altered the character of political work.

The ability of these newer technologies to target supporters with greater precision and efficiency than traditional media, however, is unlikely to disrupt the control consultants have over how campaigns are conducted. Compared with previous breakthroughs, advances in digital campaigns are taking place amid a fully developed market for political services. The commercialization of political work over the past century makes it less likely that digital politics will produce a radical opening of the campaign field. The business of politics is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few large firms, with only a few consulting companies dominating the digital niche within the industry. Advances will help them provide new services, but will also provide up and coming forces from assuming too much market share.

POLITICAL INNOVATIONS

In a world where data analysis can help drive decisions big and small, politics still remains a speculative enterprise. In the midst of a close race, it is difficult to know whether a particular tactic or strategy will prove to be the decisive factor that separates a candidate from victory or defeat. Even if many elections are decided by the broader political environment, rather than the strategies and gambits of a single campaign, the uncertainty of not knowing who will win fuels the search for a more complete picture of the public and a more effective way to communicate the candidate’s message. New techniques work their way through the political system by way of the consultants, all seeking to incorporate lessons and strategies forged during the last campaign. But even with advances in forecasting methods and polling, the intentions of the voting public cannot be fully known until Election Day.

Meanwhile, the number and frequency of elections, coupled with the free flow of political contributions, provide a market rich in opportunities for experiments in the use of novel campaign methods. According to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, there were more than 3,800 candidates in 2,500 races for state and federal office in 2012 who received at least $100,000 in campaign contributions. The recent development of digital political campaign tools illustrates how this mixture of uncertainty and opportunity fuels innovation and the continuing evolution of political work. In 2004, former Vermont governor Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination produced a major breakthrough in the use of the Internet to raise money, recruit volunteers, and mobilize supporters. Following his party’s bruising defeat in the 2004 election, Dean became the chair of the Democratic National Committee, bringing along key staff from his campaign who then built a sophisticated technology platform so the party could raise more money and target resources more effectively on behalf of Democratic candidates.

Meanwhile, several other veterans of the Dean campaign established consulting firms that further developed the tools and techniques of digital campaigning. These pockets of expertise in and outside the party came together during the 2008 presidential race, helping a relatively unknown candidate in then-U.S. senator Barack Obama secure the nomination and then win the general election over U.S. Senator John McCain. The development of digital tools continued during Obama’s first term through the creation of Organizing for America (OFA), which utilized an enormous database of email addresses collected during the campaign to mobilize support on behalf of the administration’s agenda.

In 2012, OFA morphed back into a campaign entity (renamed Obama for America) and built an extensive digital operation that utilized sophisticated data analytics in order to “fuse the multiple identities of the engaged citizen—the online activist, the offline voter, the donor, the volunteer—into a single, unified profile.” The result was widely hailed as an enormously successful fundraising, targeting, and get-out-the-vote effort that leveraged “big data” in a new and highly effective manner. Election postmortems gave a good part of the credit for Obama’s re-election to the “nerds” who created the technology for a ground game that far surpassed what the Romney campaign achieved on Election Day.

From a historical perspective, the arrival of data-driven political campaigns resembles the early days of radio and television, when practitioners experimented with new technologies whose practical effects ran just ahead of their commercial value. The cost of political web ads, software, and other technology totaled only $164 million, compared with the $1.2 billion spent on broadcast media. These figures suggest that consultants have yet to fully reap the commercial opportunities of digital tools. One reason for this gap may be that digital tools can provide campaigns with a cheaper and more efficient way to allocate resources, for instance, by delivering messages to specific segments of the electorate or assigning volunteers to canvass neighborhoods where pockets of supporters reside. In contrast, television is a rather inefficient way to advertise, especially where media markets cross state lines and there is significant competition for audience attention. The question is whether the advantages of digital tools will ever weaken the hold that media consultants currently enjoy over how campaigns spend their money.

Candidates stand at their podiums in the shadow of former president Ronald Reagan's jet during the GOP presidential candidates debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, May 3, 2007.
Candidates stand at their podiums in the shadow of former president Ronald Reagan's jet during the GOP presidential candidates debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, May 3, 2007.
Mario Anzuoni / Reuters
Even without enormous sums spent on political Internet advertising or data analytics, however, the new digital tools have transformed campaigns in several important respects. As author Daniel Kreiss observes in his book, Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics, “From Howard Dean to Barack Obama, new media have provided campaigns with new ways to end and engage supporters, to run their internal operations, and to translate the energy and enthusiasm generated by candidates and political opportunities into the staple resources of American electioneering.” Far from a simple or straightforward story of technological change, Kreiss and others have shown how the developers of digital campaign tools confronted numerous technical challenges, unforeseen setbacks, and occasional clashes with broadcast media consultants over the allocation of campaign resources. In other words, innovation and speculation are ongoing features of political work, as is the struggle over the control of that work. For instance, an important consequence of digital campaigning is the renewed emphasis on “ground wars” that marry sophisticated targeting methods with field operations that can mobilize volunteers and canvass would-be supporters.

Looking back, previous innovations have also fueled competition in the conduct of campaigns. During the first half of the twentieth century, publicity experts, public relations men, and pollsters challenged party workers and journalists as sources of political intelligence and advice. With the spread of radio and television, advertising agencies provided the personnel and expertise needed to run a modern campaign. In the 1970s, specialized consulting firms largely displaced ad agencies by embracing the partisan nature of political work, as well as tailoring their products and services to the needs and budgets of the candidate.

NEW GAME, OLD ACTORS

In a similar fashion, some believe that the new wave of digital technology will undermine the control media consultants currently enjoy in the conduct of campaigns by placing powerful tools of outreach and communication directly in the hands of the candidate. However, there are reasons to be cautious of breathless accounts that foresee radical changes in politics wrought by the Internet.

The “myth of digital democracy,” as Matthew Hindman points out, is the misplaced optimism that technology will be the great leveler, generating new avenues for political voice through the creation of online communities. Rather than “democratizing democracy” as hopeful advocates sometimes claim, the online public sphere reproduces many of the same inequalities we see elsewhere in political life. One reason, perhaps, is because the new tools of digital campaigns have become just another service to sell. Unlike the early days of radio or television, campaign innovations today occur in a highly developed marketplace for political work. As a result, new technologies of vote-getting quickly become commercial products and services that consultants sell to candidates in search of an advantage over their adversaries.

The development of digital campaigning illustrates how early advances in new media became part of the larger business of politics in the United States. As noted, the 2004 Dean campaign marked an important breakthrough in online fundraising and voter mobilization as a talented group of young staffers built a technological platform that turned the Internet into a viable and valuable political tool. When Dean’s campaign faltered, this previously unknown group of tech-savvy twenty- and thirty-somethings found themselves in high demand in the political world. As one Dean veteran recalled, “We were all pretty well marketable at the time, probably more so than we knew.” In fact, experiences gained during the 2004 Dean campaign launched several successful consulting firms that became dominant players in the emerging field of digital politics—one of which being Blue State Digital (BSD). In the waning days of the campaign, motivated by “the need for better election tools and the opportunities within Democratic political consulting.” As one of the firm’s founders put it, “there was a lot of opportunity in this space. ... All of us recognized that there was a business need.” It did not take long for a start-up conceived in a Burlington, Vermont, bar to turn the innovations of the Dean campaign into a successful commercial enterprise. In 2005, BSD worked on behalf of Dean’s successful bid to become chair of the Democratic National Committee, and, afterward, members of the firm played a central part in rebuilding the technological capacity of the party. As Kreiss documents so well, BSD developed a modular structure for email fundraising and volunteer recruitment that could be sold to other clients and candidates. During the 2006 midterms, for example, BSD provided digital services to almost two dozen House and Senate candidates (twenty of whom won their election). By 2008, Blue State Digital had fifty employees and was poised for even greater success as one of the firm’s founders, Joe Rospars, became new media director for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign.

A man enters a polling station for the Pennsylvania primaries at a Salvation Army in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, April 22, 2008.
A man enters a polling station for the Pennsylvania primaries at a Salvation Army in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, April 22, 2008. 
Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
Other successful firms in the digital field followed a similar path. Voter Activation Network (VAN), for example, got its start in the 2002 election when its founders developed software that could integrate voter information files, market research, and other data in a single, user-friendly interface.  This was particularly useful for get-out-the-vote efforts because it placed valuable data right in the hands of campaign field operations. Unlike commercial vendors who sold voter information to campaigns but retained ownership of the lists, VAN’s business model was to sell its software but let clients keep the data. This served partisan ends, as it enabled various state parties, individual campaigns, and allied groups to share information. During the 2004 campaign, VAN software was used by the Kerry campaign’s field operations; after Kerry’s loss, VAN helped numerous state party committees build up their own valuable voter lists. By 2006, the firm had contracts in twenty-five states.

Like Blue State Digital, VAN emerged from the 2006 election cycle with a strong reputation in Democratic circles as a key provider of digital tools. In 2007, the Democratic National Committee hired VAN to build the interface for its national voter file, and in 2008 VAN and BSD worked together within the Obama campaign to integrate each other’s products in a single platform that combined data collected from donors on the public campaign website with the voter files and other valuable sources of information used by field operations on the ground. Although the practical effects of this effort were somewhat limited due to technical challenges in managing large and diverse sources of data, 2008 nevertheless marked an important step in the development and integration of digital technology in presidential campaigns. In particular, data analytics emerged as a powerful tool that could combine online and offline sources of information about voters to identify and mobilize supporters, raise money, and target appeals with greater precision. The various experiments, enhancements, and advances that contributed to the Obama campaign’s success in 2008 also had important implications for the rapidly developing business of digital politics. In 2010, VAN merged with Democratic technology firm NGP to become the leading provider of campaign software on the Democratic side. In late 2015, the firm NGP VAN was at the center of a dispute when a glitch in the company's software allowed a staffer for Vermont senator Bernie Sanders to access data files from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's campaign. 

As these examples suggest, the new digital politics reinforces rather than challenges the partisan nature of political work. Although a few nonpartisan consulting firms do exist, these exceptions prove the partisan rule. The growth of Internet advertising and data analytics in U.S. campaigns marks both an important shift and a significant continuity in the history of political work. At the same time, however, the continued partisan character of political consulting means that the business of digital politics is not much different from the analog model that preceded it.

This concentration makes it unlikely that new technologies will produce a radical opening of the political process in which candidates have the capacity to connect directly with a circle of supporters without the services of a professional consultant. Although recent elections illustrate the enduring importance of grassroots activism and energy, the ability to locate, engage, and deploy volunteers still relies on technologies supplied by the same industry that provides the traditional tools of media and direct mail. With the rise of digital campaigns, consultants have developed another service to sell.

Adapted from Building a Business of Politics by Adam Sheingate with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright © Oxford University Press 2016 and published by Oxford University Press USA. (www.oup.com/us). All rights reserved.

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  • ADAM SHEINGATE is an associate professor and chair of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is Building a Business of Politics: The Rise of Political Consulting and the Transformation of American Democracy.
  • More By Adam D. Sheingate