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In the age of digital politics, data-driven campaigning has been singled out by journalists and campaign staffers alike as a powerful force that is integral to electoral victory. Current scholarship on the subject remains more mixed, however. While data practices have been empirically shown to improve field organizing and have led to increased efficiencies and effectiveness in mobilizing turnout (Gerber & Green, 2017; Malhotra, Michelson, Rogers, & Valenzuela, 2011; Nickerson & Rogers, 2014), much less is known about widely-praised practices like using microtargeting to persuade voters. What we do know is that: basic, publicly available demographic information is often most effective (Hersh, 2015), down-ballot races seldom use available targeting tools (Baldwin-Philippi, 2016), even successful top-of-the-ballot campaigns can lag behind in the data department (Baldwin-Philippi, 2017; Kreiss, Lawrence, & McGregor, 2018), and broad national-level narratives are mirrored in social media advertising despite the ability to target (Anstead, Magalhães, Stupart, & Tambini, 2018). Yet the lofty rhetoric remains. My research explores this gap between what we know data can do and how data is presented to the public as an infallible oracle. In doing so, I pay special attention to how journalists and staffers have publicized and proclaimed the power of data-driven campaigning and microtargeting—in short, how they mythologize the data campaign.
To do this, I trace the cultural history of data-campaigning through journalistic articles, staffers’ tell-all books and interviews about campaigns, and public-facing strategy de-briefs written by consultants and consulting firms for popular consumption following US elections in the years 2008-2016 (and those detailing the uptake of these practice abroad). In order to analyze how practices of data-campaigning and data staffers are constructed as powerful in these ~300 public-facing texts, I employ qualitative critical discourse analysis (Cramer, 2009). I further support this data with in-depth interviews with political professionals and journalists.
My findings highlight two themes that locate the power of data campaigning in a perceived ability to unearth objective truth within a messy context of persuasion. First, discussions of data-campaigning rely on inflated, positivist accounts of the objectivity of analytics, and the belief that more data necessarily means more and better knowledge. Second, narratives concerning who is powerful situate outsiders—notably geeks, hackers, nerds, and scientists—as uniquely qualified to access the truth, and in opposition to traditional campaign staffers who are merely concerned with persuasion. Through these narratives, journalists present the data campaign with a combination of mysticism and empiricism that passes off practices with unknown effects as oracles. Ultimately, the primacy of these narratives elides important discussions of public opinion, social cleavages, and the role of divisive messages.
Anstead, N., Magalhães, J. C., Stupart, R., & Tambini, D. (2018, August). Political Advertising on Facebook: The Case of the 2017 United Kingdom General Election. Presented at the European Consortium of Political Research Annual General Meeting, Hamburg.
Baldwin-Philippi, J. (2016). The Cult(ure) of Analytics in 2014. In J. A. Hendricks & D. Schill (Eds.), Communication and Midterm Elections: Media, Message, and Mobilization (pp. 25–42). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Baldwin-Philippi, J. (2017). The Myths of Data-Driven Campaigning. Political Communication, 34(4), 627–633.
Cramer, J. M. (2009). Critical Discourse Analysis. In Encyclopedia of Communication Theory (Vols. 1–2, pp. 221–223). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications, Inc.
Gerber, A. S., & Green, D. P. (2017). Field Experiments on Voter Mobilization: An Overview of a Burgeoning Literature. In Handbook of Field Experiments (pp. 395–438). Cambridge, MA: Elsevier. Retrieved from https://www.povertyactionlab.org/handbook-field-experiments
Hersh, E. (2015). Hacking the Electorate: How Campaigns Perceive Voters. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Kreiss, D., Lawrence, R. G., & McGregor, S. C. (2018). In Their Own Words: Political Practitioner Accounts of Candidates, Audiences, Affordances, Genres, and Timing in Strategic Social Media Use. Political Communication, 35(1), 8–31.
Malhotra, N., Michelson, M. R., Rogers, T., & Valenzuela, A. A. (2011). Text Messages as Mobilization Tools: The Conditional Effect of Habitual Voting and Election Salience. American Politics Research, 39(4), 664–681.
Nickerson, D. W., & Rogers, T. (2014). Political Campaigns and Big Data. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 28(2), 51–73.