How New Technologies Changed the Face of Political Campaigning

This post was written as part of the evaluation for the course History of the Technological Revolution taught by Laurène Tran and Besiana Balla at Sciences Po in Paris.

Josefa Velasquez of Sludge reports that the 2018 midterm elections were the most expensive in the history of the United States. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a total of $5.2 billion was spent on this election, which represents a 35 increase since the last election cycle in 2014. According to Sludge, the most expensive midterm campaign per vote was for the 10th Congressional District, where each vote cost $204.68.

How did we get here? Is this what the Founding Fathers envisioned? How did new technologies affect the democratic process? To answer these questions, we must look into the past.

Method.

Quintus Tullius Cicero, one of the greatest campaign strategists in the Roman Republic had a clear view on how to win an election campaign. In his letters to his brother Marcus Tullius Cicero (the more famous of the two), who ran for Consul in 63 B.C., Quintus gave his brother some campaign advice:

“All those holding public contracts are on your side, as well as most of the business community… And, of course, remember the special interest groups that back you. Finally, make good use of the young people who admire you and want to learn from you… Now is the time to call in all favors. Don’t miss an opportunity to remind everyone in your debt that they should repay you with their support. For those who owe you nothing, let them know that their timely help will put you in their debt… You must diligently cultivate relationships with these men of privilege… Never let them think you are a populist… “ — Quintus Tullius Cicero (translated by Philip Freeman)

Despite being written over 2000 years ago, these words are undeniably insightful even for contemporary campaigning. The more you read into the practices of ancient Roman politicians, the more you discover that the nature of politics has not changed that much at all.

As W. Jeffrey Tatum writes, political canvassing was a common occurrence in the Roman Republic. Perhaps the more interesting fact is that canvassing would get so competitive that legislation had to be passed to control it. The Lex Baebia was the first law that would combat ambitus (bribery or corruption in the electoral process) — it was enacted in 181 B.C. The canvassing would typically start in the morning, at the salutationes (greetings), when Roman citizens would gather at the houses of the Roman elite to show their respect and greet the dominus (head) of the house. Supporters of a political candidate would be able to engage with him in discussion and exchange their support for his favors.

However, there is one stark difference in political campaigning in the Roman Republic. In order to discourage candidates from disparaging their fellow leaders, stump speeches were considered taboo. Instead, candidates would be expected to gain political favor by their actions, rather than their words. Tatum asserts that while this rule was never enforced by legislation, it was very much a part of the political culture of the Roman Republic.

Cicero denounces the Catiline Rebellion in front of the Senate (Cesare Maccari, 1889).

Although more than two millennia have passed since the fall of the Roman Republic in 49 B.C. (the year when Caesar enacted his first constitutional reforms), the nature of political campaigning has not changed much. Most of Quintus Cicero’s advice to his brother could still be applied today. Canvassing and issues with political corruption associated with election campaigns remain to be at the top of the agenda in most democratic countries. The human experience of the republican, democratic model has not changed much at all. Partisanship and political scandals were as common in the Roman Republic as they are in the the United States and all over the world today.

However, there is one thing that changed the nature of political campaigning:

Technology.

Fast forward to the 20th century. President Roosevelt is delivering what comes to be known as a ‘fireside chat’ over the radio. The invention of the radio was a radical innovation for political campaigns. For the first time in history, you could now hear your candidate’s (or in the case of the fireside chats, President’s) speech from the comfort of your home — without ever having to attend a political rally. The radio dramatically increased the reach of political candidates — they were now able to talk to the most valuable kind of voter, the apathetic voter that usually abstains.

For a political campaign, the most important metric that is affected by technology is reach.

While the radio has undoubtedly increased the reach of political campaigns, it mostly became an instrument that was used by incumbent politicians. In his article, David Strömberg describes how incumbent governors targeted their spending efforts at areas where a larger share of the population had radios, in order to maximize their political capital. This makes sense, as voters with a radio set in their home would be more knowledgeable about the governor’s spending efforts in their county, which increases the chances of the incumbent’s reelection in the next election cycle.

However, for political campaigning, the most important technological innovation of the 20th century was the television. The main advantage of the television over the radio was the fact that it received the full attention of its viewer. While you can listen to the radio while doing other chores, television programs were harder to follow without devoting your attention to your TV set. For the political advertiser, this meant that your advertisement had more impact on potential voters. Over time, the television side-lined the radio as the main medium for news and entertainment.

In 1952, Presidential candidate General Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first presidential candidate to air a series of television adverts called Eisenhower Answers America. Stylized as a short Q&A advert, where Eisenhower responds to a single grievance voiced by an American citizen, the Republicans chose to buy expensive air time ahead of popular television shows, in order to maximize their reach.

Because there were only 4 major channels on Americans’ television in 1952 (ABC, CBS, NBC and DMN), you can be sure that your advert will be seen by a lot of voters. However, with the advent of cable television, people could simply switch to any of the hundreds of other channels, in order to avoid political (or other) adverts. With hundreds of TV channels, political campaigns needed to massively expand their television ad spending, in order to cover as much ground as possible. This led to an exponential increase in campaign spending.

Political Ad Spending, early-2010s (Source: Huffington Post)

By the early-2010s, the television was the king of political advertising. In the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, candidates from both sides of the aisle spent millions on TV advertising. John Kasich’s super-PACs spent $3.7 million on TV advertisements in New Hampshire alone. Despite this advertising onslaught, he only reached second place in New Hampshire’s Republican primary — receiving only half of the votes that Donald Trump did.

With its rapid expansion, the internet is set to completely side-line the television, much like the radio was side-lined in the 1960s onwards. This effect was only compounded by the exponential growth of social networks, which disrupted the entire process of political advertising.

My generation (those born around the mid-1990s) rarely ever watch traditional television. Streaming services like Netflix, HBO and Amazon Prime allow me to binge-watch the latest series of House of Cards, Game of Thrones and Man in the High Castle without having to suffer the 2 x 15-min advertisement segments that interrupt my program. If there were any political ads airing on television, they completely missed me. The only time a political ad will reach me is when I am browsing my Facebook or Instagram feed. And that is where things get interesting.

Since the 2016 US presidential election, social media came under unprecedented scrutiny. After the US intelligence community concluded that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election through social media, paranoia ensued. After the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica, we witnessed the US Senate Judiciary Committee struggling to comprehend even the basic functions of social media, such as its business model.

The reality is that TV advertising will experience the exact same fate that newspapers and radio stations did. The reach of social media is incomparable to the reach of the television for one simple reason — it is active and dynamic. When you sit in front of a television, you are a passive consumer of advertisements.

On social media, you both consume and invariably produce advertising. Whenever you like something on Facebook, it will be displayed to a large percentage of your Facebook friends (if not all). By liking an ad, you actively help spread it around to your connections — this is the network effect of social media.

However, this is not purely limited to stuff that you necessarily like or agree with. The process is dynamic in the sense that whatever you do on Facebook, your news feed (and that of your friends) will change. Whenever you call Donald Trump an idiot on Facebook, your friends will not only see your comment (which is really what you were aiming for, right?), they will also see Trump’s post that you commented on. Despite the fact that you disagree with him, you help him spread his message among your friends by voicing your discontent.

The network effect of social media is the most powerful political tool humanity ever came up with. Ask any advertising executive and they will tell you that social media is a league of its own. Clients are beginning to notice as well and for the first time in history, online ad spending surpassed TV advertising in 2016. The decline and fall of the TV advertising empire has begun.

Global Digital Advertising Spending vs. TV ad spending (Source: MAGNA).

Barrack Obama was the first presidential candidate to effectively use social media to win the 2008 Presidential election. Since then, numerous candidates for the highest office across the world tried to use social media to their advantage — some succeeded, others failed spectacularly. However, up until the late 2010s, the process was still very much focused on a high-spending, low engagement strategy. Campaign ads mainly focused on the traditional metric of reach, rather than engagement. This is the point where social media becomes revolutionary.

As I mentioned above, any action you take on social media spreads content across your network. Traditional ‘spend and pray’ tactics of producing content, boosting its viewership and praying that the message sticks does not utilize the full potential of social media. The best way to attract voters through social media is to engage with them directly, on a daily basis. Using this engagement-oriented strategy, you can easily achieve better impact than your ‘spend and pray’ opponents — for much less money. This is the advertising equivalent of asymmetric warfare.

Take a look at my former boss, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@Ocasio2018) — a young progressive congressional candidate running against the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus (the no. 4 Democrat in the House) Rep. Joe Crowley. During the primaries campaign, Crowley outspent our campaign 5 to 1 (1.5$ million vs. $300k). However, through the clever use of Twitter and Instagram, a clear focus on engaging with voters both online and offline and a single online campaign video with a clear, strong message, an outsider dethroned one of the most powerful Democrats in the House. This is ‘asymmetric campaigning’ in action.

Let’s wrap this up.

The key takeaway from this article is that the core method of political campaigning has not changed much since the time of the Roman Republic. Political canvassing remains to be the single most important way of getting people to vote for you. The problems that we experience with democracy today — corruption, the influence of special interest groups, bribery — these are the issues that the ancient Romans dealt with as well.

The main revolution happened in political communications. Innovations such as the radio and the TV fundamentally increased the reach of election campaigns. For decades, these this technology allowed candidates to pump money into advertising, trying to reach as many voters as possible and hoping to convince them to vote for them. With the rapid expansion of radio stations and TV channels, more and more money needed to be pumped into advertising, to cover as much ground as possible. This is the reason why US elections became so expensive.

Social media disrupted this system. With a focus on voter engagement, rather than passive advertising methods, candidates are able to have a greater impact for much less money. While this is by no means an overnight solution to the problem of campaign funding in the United States, it is a step towards more transparency and democratization of the electoral process, which became dominated by Super-PACs and other special interest groups. In this case, technology has an overwhelmingly positive effect on democracy.

Is this what the Founding Fathers envisioned when they founded the United States? Almost certainly not, but that’s fine — nobody would expect Benjamin Franklin to know how to tweet.

Offline Sources:

Cicero, Quintus Tullius (2012), How To Win An Election: An Ancient Guide For Modern Politicians, translated and with introduction by Philip Freeman (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press).

Strömberg, David (2004), “Radio’s Impact on Public Spending”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 119(1): 189–221.

Tatum, W. Jeffrey (2013), “Campaign Rhetoric” in Catherine Steel and Henriette van der Blom eds., Community And Communication: Oratory and Politics in Republican Rome (Oxford: Oxford University Press).