Horses and bayonets may have become the latest Internet meme to come from the last of the surprisingly comedic presidential debates (see also: binders), but as a metaphor for how candidates—who, as of yesterday, were locked in a dead heat according to some polls—are reaching and mobilizing voters, its archaic inference couldn’t be further from the truth of the campaign. In the final stretch of the presidential race, each camp is employing the most state-of-the-art digital tactics and strategies to target undecided voters in ways Americans have never seen.
By using hundreds of data points you probably didn’t know were available, both the Obama and Romney teams are able to narrow with near surgical precision the persuadable voters in key states and serve them up political messaging on the specific issues the campaign predicts they’ll likely care about.
It’s the kind of progress that whips election strategists into a tizzy. More data… about everyone! But it’s also changing the very face of political campaigning. This evolution is the focus of The Digital Campaign, an investigative documentary from PBS’ Frontline that explores the impact of digital tools on the election cycle. Taking an unbiased approach, the film visits the digital HQs of both political parties to discover how the wealth of data is being sliced and diced to appeal to the people that matter with the messages that matter.
Using sophisticated algorithms, public data like address, gender, race and voting history is paired with the seemingly quotidian, such as Facebook likes, info gained from marketing firms, and web history gleaned from cookies. From there, assumptions are made about voters, who are then put into buckets—like "ours," "theirs," and "undecided"—which get more and more refined until potential voting patterns are revealed amid the arcane. As it’s described in the film, it’s the Moneyball of politics.
The documentary—which is online now and will air on PBS Newshour on Oct. 29 and 30—grew out of a Frontline initiative called Big Money 2012, investigating the effects of money in politics, says Andrew Golis, Frontline’s Director of Digital Media & Senior Editor. "We were interested in the ways campaigns are spending money—both in terms of new people or actors spending, like super PACs, and new tactics for how they spend that money, like how digital campaigns are affecting the election cycle. It’s become clear that this is one of the most dramatic shifts that’s underway and one of the trends that really going to define American democracy in the long term. It’s only just the beginning of what’s going to be a pretty dramatic transition in the tactics of American politics."
What makes this shift so significant is the fact that an estimated one-third of potential voters are no longer consuming mass media, the main vehicle for political persuasion—they use cell phones over landlines and they watch TV on demand, not as scheduled, making them hard to reach. The Romney campaign calls these people (ironically) "off the grid" voters.
Adding a little bit of a McLuhanesque twist to the topic, The Digital Campaign is supported by Targeting the Electorate, an interactive website created by Toronto-based interactive agency Secret Location that replicates the experience of being served specific ads based on certain behavior. By inputting data points about your actions and media consumption habits into the site—your state, gender, age demo, primary phone usage, if you allow web cookies, how you watch TV, and whether you use social networks—you can learn how campaigns might be targeting you. Specific clips from the film are integrated in the interactive experience.
"I think what was exciting about doing an interactive story as well as a traditional film is that the form fits the editorial," say Golis. "So allowing people to experience their particular version of how they’re experiencing these tactics makes sense because the whole point of the story is that people are experiencing this campaign in different ways depending on the way in which they consume media."
James Milward, founder and executive producer of Secret Location, says the main goal of the site was to digitally represent how technology and media are evolving within the campaigns and represent that in a compelling and more literal way that what was being described.
"One of the things that’s really difficult to do with this is create a concise participatory experience that reflects back the most poignant pieces from the film and a way that you can quickly gain some nice context without getting lost in the details," says Milward. "That’s the risk of deep journalism—that it’s so deep you can’t process it, so the resonance of it gets lost on you. We can add a layer of perspective that makes is accessible."
Milward believes that perspective is critical, given how significantly this tech is affecting the messaging each individual receives. "If you think about what this means—that one voter in one place is getting one version of a candidate and another person in another place is getting a different version—you start to realize that while you’re voting for the same person as other people around the country, you might not necessarily be voting for them for the same reason. And that’s an important thing to understand when talking about a national candidacy."
On the one hand, it’s spectacular how specific campaign teams can get. On the other, it’s spectacularly creepy how specific campaign teams can get. Given that this election will see record-breaking spending on digital marketing, predicted to reach $160 million, candidates are banking heavily on the importance of micro-targeting. At the same time, research suggests that potential voters are completely turned off by targeted advertising, making this new frontier potentially fruitful but completely volatile territory.
"We as journalists try to tell the story and give people the information they need to make decision whether it’s creepy or cool," adds Golis. "Our responsibility is not to add more opinion in to a world that has plenty of opinion; it’s to add information and analysis."