No Touching

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Money and technology have transformed how political campaigns are run.

by Dan Faltesek


Given enough money and technology, it should be possible for someone to run a Presidential campaign with nothing resembling a whistle stop tour or a fifty state strategy. Ideally, Americans' hands would go unshaken and babies would remain unkissed. Campaigns would be run from distant bunkers with advanced technology. This dream is by no means new. Recording technologies were supposed to lead to the disembodied campaign, television too, and now social media presents a technology that might finally make the campaign without contact possible. 2012 was the first American national election to see the full embrace of digital media, and may be the last for traditional retail, Presidential politics. For all the democratic promise of social media technologies, their implementation in politics has been just as cold and distant as television.

Romney campaign digital director Zac Moffat told Brett LoGiurato that the campaign had a strategy to get find "off the grid voters." According to graphics he provided, the Romney campaign believed to that point that there were almost two million off the grid voters in Ohio alone. For the campaign this is a startling statistic as it means that all their conventional purchases of radio and television time would seemingly slip past huge swaths of the potential voters. For the conventional campaign media this is even more dangerous—if campaigns don't buy advertisements, they don't get paid. The solution for conservatives was to reach out and contact those masses of people who are tech savvy enough to have dropped out of the regular television public and who also are unaware of anything other than their cable bill. This called for wall-to-wall banners and weeks of sponsored hashtags. #fightforjobs anyone?

Lois Romano described the Obama campaign's online efforts as a "vast digital empire," where "more than 150 techies are quietly peeling back the layers of your life." Where Romney broadcasts across the digital public sphere with a highly pressurized money hose, Obama cut deep with fully moneyed data mining tools. Romano's layers of details about campaign are striking—new software development, centralized database systems, and perhaps the most important element of all—new content. There has not been a campaign like this before in American history.

Just as the two campaigns have very different directions, they have one great similarity. Romney's 2012 campaign is the final iteration of the campaign of the twentieth century, the 30,000-foot wonder. No stops needed, no need to eat a corn dog at the Minnesota State Fair. How did Romney reward those who professed support for his campaign—by raffling off a chance "to join me on board the campaign plane for a day on the campaign trail - at 30,000 feet" on Twitter. Time with audiences could be limited to those with money, raffle winners, and those presumed not to be equipped with hidden cameras. The theory of the campaign as a whole is simple, raise a huge amount of money, and fill the channels of communication with content. This is very similar to their strategy for the online world, which would explain why their online strategy both in theory and practice is so similar to the offline strategy. For Moffat, Romney, and the 30,000-foot group, communication is a conduit where meaning is blasted at audiences. These practitioners are well educated; they know that there is no magic bullet. If there had been, the scant number of real life Don Drapers of a bygone era would have filled our houses to the brim with clothes dryers, blenders, and fine doctor approved cigarettes. Media producers know this as well, which is why the schedule is peppered with any number of cross-hybridized reality television shows. Since there is no deductive strategy, an inductive substitute would suffice. Fill the airwaves. Pack the minutes between programs to the burst point. Either something will stick or the saturation will change the very noise of life to be an attack on the other candidate. If they run for cover under their DVRs, push advertisements on Twitter, put pop-ups on their YouTube cat videos, and smear ads next to their beloved bacon pictures. In the final iteration, sponsored Facebook stories allowed the campaign to use the appearances of your friends as a ventriloquist's dummy. Word of mouth, simulated for a minimum of seven dollars: Visa, MasterCard, or PayPal please.

The Obama campaign would seem to be different. They used an array of targeted advertisements and banners. In addition to this fairly orthodox strategy, the campaign shifted the central location of phone bank resources. Through the /make calls service on my.barakobama.com activists could reach out and touch other voters without ever needing to leave their homes. Ideally, their sea of data, carefully mined and presented would allow callers to only reach sympathetic ears. No time wasted on Republicans, appeals through social media ideally crafted just for you. According to Romano's report, this incredibly sophisticated system could parse a wide variety of cross-tabs. In non-new media speak; they broke all the data down into very small categories where all the apparently important things about you can be read on a spreadsheet. Or at least the You that is knowable from your basic demographic measurements. Romano's source put it in no uncertain terms, "digital is no longer a part of the campaign. It is the campaign." Combine this with traditional events and a compliment of high production value commercials and you have the inverse of Romney campaign: slicker, more direct, and dependent on tightening its focus unto a single person.

Although this tight marketing strategy comes directly from apparently successful social media businesses, the melancholia of some left Liberals is understandable: they haven't seen a campaign that isn't using mass communications. Yet, they should not freak out too much: the ultra-granular strategy may differ from the 30,000-foot in some respects; in others it is its twin. Drilling down doesn't entail creating a relationship as if with a friend or neighbor, it is a generic prescription of a meaning that is supposed to persuade that person. The conduit metaphor is here too, just with really small pipes. The content that is coming through those pipes can only be so different, which is why the personal touch of the phone bank and the door-to-door canvasser will remain, at least as long as the volunteers don't entirely imagine themselves to be digital gurus. Mail merge is mail merge, and a laser-printed signature lacks the imprint of a pen, even if color toner is used. Left melancholia about the difficulty in perceiving the visibility of the digital Obama campaign will be seen as something of an anachronism in the future. Of course campaigns are invisible, no one will know if you ran commercials if they are not watching television.

In this idealized junction of the 2012 Obama campaign there are both the traditional modes of campaigning and the most advanced digital campaign yet devised. The 2012 campaign has featured non-campaign tools, which are beyond anything yet devised as well. Poll aggregation has filtered out the noise plaguing the quantitative measurement of public opinion, and the FCC database of political advertising purchases on broadcast stations has provided habeas corpus for the critique of money in politics. Unfortunately, this is as far as the campaign comes, the blending of the retailing, aviation, and computing cannot hold. The future image of the campaign is not a man or woman in a crowd of people, but the image submitted by President Obama before his Reddit AMA—a single person, on a laptop, alone. There are three factors that lead toward this conclusion.

Scale. In his classic Communication and Culture, James Carey invoked the image of communication networks from The Federalist Papers, where central communication might flow out, but the relative difficulty for communication to flow in would protect national politics from regional problems. The raw scale of democracy even at the founding of the United States was so large as to require thinking about the communication network as a network—images of a public square were never able to capture the reality of communication within the United States. Clearly, this force, the asymmetrical flow of information, cannot hold a country together. The communication resources needed to bring Oregonians and Floridians into an imaginary national community are both very general and highly specific. What the conventional campaign and the digital campaign both effectively do is manage the size of the United States through broadcasting techniques. The fundamental difference between the digital data dredge and spot television is that a human produces and sends campaign ads to a television station, a well-positioned social media advertisement can be delivered without touching human hands. Smudge free.

Control. The central problem with decentralized social media is that individual persons can create publics on the fly. Central campaign networks can give a meme a boost, they can authorize, they can disclaim, but in the last instance they have no control over the campaign, at least as long as there is net neutrality. The Obama campaign has little control over what individual members do or don't do, just as the Romney apparatus has no control over Tea Party activists in Florida reportedly trying to reverse engineer the Obama call at home system for their own aims. Hidden camera footage is the pinnacle when campaigns are so carefuly crafted. The public hunger of authentic materials tears at the culture of control, just as expanding media systems allow individuals to broadcast without help. Even vertically integrating media industry organizations into political parties is inadequate at this point. The fragments of the news market are tiny. Control is at a premium.

Language. Language is not a tool, it is us. The campaigns clearly view language instrumentally—meaning is something you send out in a status or something you transmit from a radio tower. Really reaching people in a politically nuanced way requires affective thinking and emotional literacy. Lucky for instrumental communicators, crass substitutes have been effective in rousing political passions for centuries. The most important reason that the conduit metaphor continues to be central to campaigns is that communication is  fast and the model makes it appear simple. You send the meaning to the receiver and the exchange is done. Nothing messy or risky can happen when you pour meaning through a pipe that only flows one way.

When take together the challenges of size, control, and language it is very difficult to see a future where campaigns are not a Janus faced combination of mass broadcasting and mass social casting. At this point traditional retail politics are largely vestigial, providing fewer services than the appendix. The dream for a future politics is that we might have true social contact, that the people will be a real force organized through the social media apparatus. The signs to be read so far don't point toward a democratized future, but toward a refinement of the impersonal, giant sized, technologies for the campaigns of the present. Social media will not vanquish the 30,000-foot campaign, if anything it will simply be refined to the point that it too can be implemented from a great distance from the noisy, smelly, tasty everyday life of persons and their publics. Ideally, from a laptop on board a MD-83 or 747.

This is as good as it gets—the 2012 election has a mix of all-possible campaign styles. In this essay I argue that the social media strategy of the Obama campaign is the flip side of the strategy of the Romney campaign. The important difference is that where the Obama 2012 campaign continues to include the features of retail, mass, and social campaigns, the forces of an informational culture pull at the inclusion of the retail. Handshakes are measured in seconds, status updates in milliseconds. In this sense, social media is just as distant from the public as television. Unfortunately, the situation that called the campaigns into existence, the Presidency of the United States, has such high stakes that every possible campaign element will be fully instrumentalized, if even just to provide the illusion of control.

In early October, Romney decided to engage in retail politics, to as Sam Stein described for the Huffington Post, "mix it up with voters in impromptu settings." Given the number of articles on this topic, it would seem that this only began on October 8. Parts of the 2012 campaign were digital, the all-digital campaigns of the future will be some of the least social. This isn't to say that Presidential hopefuls won't shake hands in the future or that they will travel the country wearing latex bodysuits, but that the people who they do dare to brush alongside will be carefully chosen—either for their narrative utility in campaign speeches, or for their money.

At the end of each Presidential debate between Romney and Obama the image running during the pundit warm-up was of a genial moment where candidates shake hands, embrace their families, and chat. There is something unsettling about the ending of the debate, that even after living as method actors who despise each other, they touch. It is awkward. Where their personas fake? In the opening movement of the second debate it seemed that the circling bulls, Romney and Obama, might touch. After the debate, Tagg Romney posed that he wanted nothing more than to reach out and touch the President. Touch is what holds our political community together, as John Durham Peters penned, "No real community endures without touch." For Peters, it is this touch that is the bulwark against mass communication deception. Touch is risky, difficult to simulate, and deeply resonant of our close tie to other humans. This is the worst of all worlds for the conduit model communicator. A touch-less campaign only makes sense. Given enough money campaigns will soak the airwaves with commercials and be staffed by Facebookers who never need to come into the office. Retail politics with all the closeness and touching would be a natural anecdote to the dominant campaign logic. This is why the first rule of the digital campaign of the future is clear: no touching.


Dan Faltesek spends a large amount of time being surprised by how poorly targeted advertising software knows him, and teaching social media at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

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Copyright © Dan Faltesek. All rights reserved.

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