In The Future of Organizing is Relational, I established that the history of political communication is directly correlated to developments in the media, and that digital relational organizing represents the most recent milestone in that evolution. I concluded that campaigns are increasingly opting to employ relational programs because they enable them to match potential voters with their most trusted messenger. However, until the birth of the political tech industry, it wasn’t always as easy for campaigns to build and maintain voter trust, as they were constrained by the technology available to them.

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The history of political communication holds valuable insights that help us better understand how American campaigning arrived at this point. Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 and Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaigns obviously looked starkly different, but political candidates’ goals throughout history have largely remained unchanged: to meet voters where they are and establish authenticity. I set out to trace the history of how campaigns adapted their outreach strategies to the presence of new technologies, with respect to their enduring pursuit of cultivating voter trust.

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Until the advent of the first live broadcast mediums in the early 20th century, political communication occurred in-person or in print. Candidates naturally wanted to present their ideologies to prospective voters, but their options to do so on a large scale were severely limited. In an otherwise barren media landscape, candidate speeches, the reporting of those events in the newspaper, and pamphlets were campaigns’ sole avenues for outreach and voters’ only avenues into political happenings.

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The radio changed everything. In 1924, not only could Americans tune in every night to learn about current events, but they could also hear directly from candidates from the comfort of their homes. Simply being able to hear the intention behind a candidate’s voice represented a new dimension of voter trust. FDR’s fireside chats were a prime example of how broadcast radio had the power to create a political movement built on familiarity — FDR had a unique relationship with every one of his listeners, as his radio shows brought him to life within many American homes.

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Television was the next frontier in political campaigning, as candidates were newly able to promote compelling advertisements to a broad audience, as well as appear live to engage in debates or deliver speeches. Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign marked the first cycle in which a candidate crafted ads that aired on television. The first televised debate, famously between JFK and Nixon in 1960, proved the medium could have a noticeable impact on electoral outcomes: JFK’s calm demeanor and appealing appearance won him the debate before Nixon, with his “sweaty brow,” even got the chance to advocate for his ideals. With voters able to both listen to and see the people running to represent them, candidates were immediately humanized, and politics became an even more personal exercise.

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Phone calls took off as a medium for advocacy in the late 1960s, when RFK’s presidential campaign first set up phone banks in his campaign offices and invited staff and supporters to call through a list of potential voters. At the time, this practice was seemingly well-received by voters and a revolutionary contact multiplier for campaigns, but in recent elections, the contact and persuasion rates for political phone calls have steadily declined.

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George McGovern’s presidential campaign in 1972 was responsible for creating another channel into voters’ daily lives — unsolicited political mail. Mailers, either describing candidates’ ideologies or soliciting donations, offered another mechanism for campaigns to increase supporter buy-in, advertise their policy platform, and fundraise.

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Door-to-door canvassing has always been a tool in American politics, but the development of NGP in 1997 (now NGP VAN), transformed the voter contact process. Large-scale canvassing efforts enable campaigns to grow their outreach efforts exponentially, turning motivated supporters into volunteers responsible for delivering the campaign’s message directly to the doors of potential voters. NGP VAN’s voter modeling and targeting capabilities, among many other innovations, laid the groundwork for 21st century canvassing operations. However, NGP VAN, now a progressive organizing powerhouse, only facilitates cold contact; its tech guides field organizers in their mission to cut turf and assign volunteers to canvass strangers in their neighborhoods. Despite recent evidence that discredits cold contact’s efficacy, campaigns still invest in these operations to build a pipeline of accurate support score data.

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The wide-spread use of the Internet for political advocacy democratized access to political information and enabled campaigns to reach voters in an entirely new arena. Campaign websites (1996), ActBlue (2004), and political emails facilitate campaign support and fundraising pleas directly on voters’ computers, while providing ample information about candidates and ways to take action in support of campaigns. Bridging the gap between traditional and digitally-based forms of voter contact, the Internet spurred more accessible organizing but seemingly reduced voter trust, as cold digital outreach can feel impersonal and intrusive to both digital natives and late-adopters.

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Social media platforms, namely Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, further changed the game. As these platforms began to occupy more and more of the average American’s time, their political value increased. Campaign ads on Facebook drive political engagement through the roof as campaigns, drawing on the practices of message segmentation and micro-targeting, efficiently promote unique messages to the specific demographics that will be most receptive to a piece of content’s specific lens. Facebook’s news feed, groups, and advertisement capabilities allow for decentralized organizing and the quick spread of political information — but they, in addition to the algorithm designed to filter news to a user’s feed, have largely created echo chambers and spurred the fake news crisis. While Facebook offers a vast amount of new opportunities for political engagement, and draws on social pressure to incentivize action, fake news and the barrage of advertisements on its platform have greatly eroded voter trust. How can voters trust a piece of online content to be a valid expression of a candidate’s ideals in an age where deep fake videos, fraudulent pages, and misleading memes distort reality?

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Twitter has also been particularly impactful in recent elections, as the platform offers candidates a direct channel to share their thoughts with voters and build virtual rapport. Tweets give voters an entirely new degree of insight into a candidate’s stream of thought, but we have seen some politicians go too far in using Twitter as their primary medium for policy making…

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As door knocks and phone calls continue to exhibit declining response rates, campaigns are also turning to SMS as a mechanism to both disseminate information about elections and to persuade undecided voters. Tools such as Hustle and GetThru enable campaign volunteers to legally send thousands of cold, pre-scripted texts to prospective voters on any given day. Cold political texts have a significantly higher open/response rate than phone calls, and they enable campaign volunteers to directly reach voters where they are most likely to view a message.

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Throughout American history, campaigning has remained an exercise in targeted advocacy and authentic coalition building. Candidates utilize every tool at their disposal to initiate meaningful interactions with prospective supporters, and campaigns constantly look towards the next frontier in technology in order to bolster their efforts. The development of political communication and voter contact strategies is best understood in the context of campaigns’ pursuit of establishing voter trust, which leads us back to relational organizing and the state of American campaigning today.

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As most of these advocacy channels continue to exhibit declining response and persuasion rates, campaigns are naturally turning to more decentralized organizing programs that rely on friend-to-friend contact, placing the responsibility of meeting voters where they are on motivated volunteers and organizers who know their networks and communities best. Campaigns continue to utilize every channel at their disposal, and will do so for the foreseeable future; however, as these historical strategies lose some of their power, campaigns will continue to invest in relational organizing programs that enable them to reach voters through their most trusted messengers without having to adopt entirely new mediums.

Posted 
Jul 17, 2020
 in 
From the Field