Despite the power of television and social media, direct interaction with the candidate is still arguably the most effective way of mobilizing or persuading a voter. While not as powerful as a one-on-one interaction, rallies, town halls, and other gatherings are effective at bringing voters into the political process.
The challenge for candidates is primarily one of efficiency. It takes a lot of time and resources to coordinate all the logistics and to ensure the candidate is engaging with enough people to make it worthwhile. Traditionally, it has been very difficult to populate venues with “persuadables” as opposed to those already in your camp, and if a venue is half-full, it could do more harm than good.
These types of coordination and logistical challenges are precisely the types of problems that well-developed online platforms and new data can be effective at addressing. MeetUp was first used effectively by the Dean campaign in 2003 to lower organizing and logistical costs, but there have not been major advancements since then. One of our experts noted that the problem is not that the tools are not there; the bigger obstacle is convincing campaigns to use the tools that are there. In recent years, there has been a greater recognition within campaign circles of the importance of a strong “ground game,” but the message crafters and ad-buyers still generally hold more sway within campaigns.
In-person environments also are much more difficult to control. Protestors wanting to cause a scene and videographers looking to catch the candidate in an embarrassing off-hand remark abound. Often the most hard-hitting questions or harmful moments to a campaign come in those settings.
Candidates often try to mitigate those risks by sticking closely to their stump speeches and only cautiously deviate from their prepared remarks. The public is getting increasingly frustrated by this approach and yearns for (what seems to be, at least) more authentic and direct interaction. For many “Interested Bystanders1,” these events embody the political rancor they are seeking to avoid and involve too much hassle to fit into their busy lives.
There are also new online forums (Google Hangouts or other types of Online Townhalls) that can provide more direct interaction between the candidate and potential voters who are already active online. The potential for “flaming” or “trolling” can be high in some of these contexts, but the formats vary widely and new features are being developed to limit that potential and yield more constructive and intimate discussions.
The candidate attributes that make for success in these more spontaneous and interactive discussions are not the same as those required for giving a good stump speech or coming across well in an advertisement. If someone released a traditional television ad on Snapchat, where the expectation is that videos should be more intimate with less expensive production value, they would be ridiculed for being insincere and out of touch. So if these types of more direct engagement were to become more efficient, we could see candidates who are more able to “connect” directly with voters gain advantage over those who present a more polished media persona.
Vice President, Aspen Institute / Former Republican Member, Congress
I believe strongly that the vast vast majority of our elected officials are there to serve their constituents and think it is important we not paint them with a broad brush of corruption. With that said, the demands of modern campaigning do make it harder to stay connected with everyday people. When I first ran for office, I had a map of the district with nearly every block color coded indicating where I’d walked and knocked on doors. If someone showed even a bit of interest, I’d ask them to invite some friends over and have me back. The more we can encourage this kind of intimate connection between candidates and the constituents they aim to represent, the stronger the bond we’ll have between our citizens and their representatives and the stronger we’ll be as a society.
Executive Director, The National Institute for Civil Discourse
Nothing is more powerful than a personal connection between voters and candidates running for office; particularly in a time when trust between we the people and our political and governmental institutions is at an all-time low. Innovations in on-line platforms that enable candidates and potential voters to connect authentically and personally is one of the most promising opportunities we have to reengage citizens in our democracy. Particularly effective will be those platforms that also integrate the potential for creative, self-organizing in-person experiences.
Chancellor’s Professor, UC Berkeley / Principal and Co-founder, American Majority Project Research Institute
This could be a very effective strategy if framed as an opportunity for education and relationship-building with voters who are deeply distrustful of politicians and their motives.
Former Field Organizer, Obama for America / Co-Founder of Resident Association of Greater Englewood
A people powered play book must be centered on people, not candidates. This question of personalizing campaigns is the best place to do this. Consider rallies: Rallies aren’t targeted to persuadable voters, at least in terms of attendance. Rallies are designed to identify supporters (through data collection activities like tickets) and mobilize supporters to be volunteers. Anytime a candidate is present, so will be a tracker, heckler or troll. The candidate, then, has real incentive to stick to a script. That said, a campaign can personally connect with a voter without the candidate being there. That’s why Dean Meetups and Obama House Meetings worked so well in converting the curious into supporters and supporters into volunteers. These opportunities for authentic personal engagement can potentially increase the participation of the “interested bystanders” mentioned earlier. We would do well to remember and analyze the Dean MeetUp and Obama House Meeting models and explore new forms of these people centered methods. These should be the very heart of the people powered playbook in that they serve as the gateway for deeper engagement.
Former Director of Data for Obama Campaign / Executive Director of the New Organizing Institute
“As effective as high quality field campaigns are today, they’re likelier to get even better as the research improves. Successful turnout interventions also seem to have lasting impacts on individuals, leading them to become lifelong voters, as well as on their cohabitants. But to take advantage of these innovations, campaigns need to seriously increase their focus on field.” – Vox.com Whenever anyone asks me what I think the future of political technology will be, I answer “relationships.” Relationships between humans are and will always be the fundamental building blocks of political power. I can’t tell you the number of times a campaign has attempted to launch some clever, new, theatrical digital initiative only to learn, over and over again, that organizing just doesn’t work unless there’s an IRL human element to underpin the effort. Not to mention the long list of tech entrepreneurs who think that civic participation is a problem that can be solved with the right app. Literally zero% of these shiny tech apps have had a meaningful impact in the political space. The only platforms that have had any impact on the way voters interact with campaigns are those with much broader utility, such as Facebook, SMS, Twitter, etc. Study #blacklivesmatter. I say this not because I have, I’m sitting on my couch right now eating toffee. What the hell do I know about how to start a revolution? But I’m aware enough of my surroundings to recognize it as an influential disruptive force in American politics that uses broadly-applicable utilities such as Twitter to help organize and coordinate a national effort that is underpinned by it’s most important asset: actual humans who meet in real places that exist in time and space and then do things.
As long as the only metric that counts is political participation – getting more people to be politically active – we may not see much of a shift away from partisan polarization and toward problem solving. For me, a key question is whether it’s possible to do more to reward candidates for inviting a different kind of participation that is based more on listening and genuinely focused on solving problems as opposed to messaging that plays to people’s fears and exploits their frustration for political gains.
Professor of Government & Politics, University of Maryland
Subjecting existing campaign practices to evidence-based study is critical for getting candidates to consider alternative methods of reaching voters.
Account Manager, Snapchat / Former Media Associate, Bully Pulpit Interactive
Bernie Sanders has demonstrated a large ROI of People Powered Tactics through his Reddit page. Thousands of people visit his Reddit page daily, and organize grassroots campaign efforts, watch parties for Democratic Debates, and gain traction and significant views for news clips that paint his campaign in a positive light and portray the Clinton campaign as a billionaire-backed effort that doesn’t care about the average American.
Former Senior Director, Code for America
I don’t think the problem is that new tools need to be created or existing ones need to be tailored. We need to invest in better and more scalable modes of online organizing. Mostly, campaigns tend to fire up their communities just in time for elections, leaving them dormant and/or passive during non-election years. Can we find ways to build civic power with decentralized groups of people consistently and over time so that activation costs around campaigns are lower? The Obama campaign attempted this with Organizing for America. There is a lot to be learned from that attempt, and a much bigger need for investment here than in new tools.
Executive Director, MoveOn.org Political Action
In addition to “compelling research” there needs to be an investment in training staff, consultants and campaign managers who can make a compelling case for the investment in field and direct voter contact tactics (like house parties) to get the candidate regularly in front of voters.
Founder, The New American Leaders Project
I believe that connecting with voters is a critical and necessary means to influence their sense of efficacy. Asking people for their vote validates their place in our democracy, and too many people have never been asked for their vote, either because they are taken for granted or because candidates assume they (that group of voters) won’t vote. So the potential is great to engage and re-engage voters simply by respecting and asking for their vote.
Consultant, Clinton Foundation / Consultant, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation
With more mobile-based technology and VR, there could be some amazing new opportunities for VR townhalls, hyper personalized messaging to voters, etc., to make campaigns more People Powered. Asking each voter their Tier 1 and 2 issues could then ensure that campaigns are truly listening to each voter’s concerns.
All answers: 1 = strongly disagree / 5 = strongly agree
How much do the conventional tactics for achieving this objective influence how reliant campaigns feel on narrow subsets as opposed to broad cross-sections of the electorate?
How much do you think the tactics for achieving this objective are likely to change in the coming decade?
How much opportunity do you see for advancing more People Powered tactics for achieving this objective via each lever?
Increase People Powered ROI
Decrease Conventional ROI