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Blog Post for Feb. 20th

“What’s next?”

I grew up on dinner-table discussions about current events and watching Jeopardy with my family nightly. As one of four loud boys, dinner was not infrequently a shouting match of who could argue their point the loudest. Perhaps the second most common thing in our family was a shared love of politics. I remember from a young age watching The West Wing, an NBC political television show, with my father. As the oldest son, I often got to stay up the latest and talk with him about the show. To the disbelief of no one in my family, least not my mother, I became fascinated with politics from a young age. The West Wing has been my favorite source of entertainment since then, and one of its most famous lines is, “What’s next?” It was the line of the President to his top staff as they worked through each episode on the next crisis, bill in Congress, or personal issue.

This focus, sometimes obsession, of what is to come permeates through life in every field of study and practice. Reading the first chapter of Daniel Kreiss’ book Taking Our Country Back: The Crafting of Networked Politics from Howard Dean to Barack Obama, I continue to circle back to this question.

In his first chapter, Kreiss explores what’s next as it relates to political campaigns by studying Howard Dean’s use of new media during the 2004 Democratic primaries through their extension and expansion in the 2008 Presidential campaign. He presents a history of political campaigns and their use of new media, beginning in 2000 and the limited use of the internet as a tool for small dollar donations, engagement with the campaign, and promotion of the candidate’s visibility. Kreiss then transitions to the use of email and blogs as innovation in voter engagement with Dean. The candidate used these tools to innovate in the field of voter engagement and campaign communication. Further, they began to use metrics to track the most effect appeals and better target voters. At the time, these tools were on the edge of a new frontier concerning political campaigns. Dean’s team came together by way of attraction, many from other fields like the technology industry, in an effort to fulfill the candidate’s promise to “reinvigorate Democratic and participatory politics,” (Kreiss, 9).

Moving on to the presidential campaign of 2008, Kreiss discusses the importance of infrastructure and organization to campaigns. He states early in the first chapter that information environments do not happen on their own, but through the deliberate action of people and organizations. In his election night speech, President-Elect Obama spoke to the “millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized.” Indeed, the chapter characterizes his election as an achievement of organization.

The most interesting pieces of new innovation coinciding with infrastructure and organization was VoteBuilder, the Democratic Party’s database of state voter files and commercial data. Commissioned by Dean during his time as the chair of the Democratic National Committee. This database was crucial in the 2008 election was campaigns at both the state and national level, a continuously updated source of information with which to better target the electorate.

Looking back at the first Obama campaign, with an eye for the already-begun presidential campaign of 2016, targeted media and voter engagement is crucial. Looking at what’s next for political campaigns, micro-targeting is one area I believe will continue to be of utmost importance.

Micro-targeting works by taking whatever individual-level information is available (like information from voter files on VoteBuilder) and combining it with demographic, geographic and marketing data about those individuals- to build statistical models that predict the attitudes and behaviors of voters for whom that individual-level information is not known. In short, it takes a population, separates similar voters into a subgroup through data analysis, and then tries to predict their behavior based on the behavior on similar individuals.

Micro-targeting is only a viable tool because of the work innovation exhibited on Howard Dean’s initial campaign, and the infrastructure and organizational efforts of the Obama campaign in 2008. It has far-reaching implications for political campaigns in relation to efficacy of voter engagement and return on investment.

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