Big Data meets doorknocking: the political contest’s new frontier

To find a revolution in campaigning comparable with micro-targeting you have to look back beyond the ‘Kevin 07’ online pitch to Gough Whitlam’s 1972’s TV-driven ‘It’s Time’ triumph. AAP/Dan Peled

Australian election campaigns are facing another revolutionary change, which has the potential to transform the electoral contest, redefine campaign funding and even revive political parties. The “micro-targeting” revolution looms as a transformative event on a scale comparable to the arrival of national television advertising in the 1972 “It’s Time” campaign and the emergence of the focus group as the dominant form of market research in the 1980s.

The idea of micro-targeting is to identify voters who, the campaign believes, are most persuadable and then to craft and deliver personalised messages to them. The Labor Party invested a lot of time and money and effort in micro-targeting in the 2013 campaign. Labor’s recent campaign review has given national secretary George Wright the green light to do more in the lead-up to 2016.

Identifying information equals power

The key technology is information management. A micro-targeting campaign assembles databases – of names, addresses, consumer preferences, voting behaviour and the like – and uses analytical tools to trawl through and predictively identify persuadable voters.

This insight is translated into campaign messages to be delivered by email, social media, phone banks and face-to-face at the front door.

Micro-targeting combines the human energy of volunteers staffing the call centres and patrolling the streets with the precision of sophisticated hardware and software. Big Data meets doorknocking: it’s a perfect blend of new and old-style campaigning.

The idea is for the party to engage voters in a two-way “conversation”. Labor calls it “community engagement”.

As a campaign tool, it is more finely targeted than broadcast TV advertising. It is “smarter” than direct mail, which is sent to known groups of supporters: the goal of micro-targeting is to use analytical tools to identify as-yet-unknown and unpersuaded voters. Its interactive quality means it can listen and respond as well as talk and – an important extra benefit – raise funds.

Is Labor or Liberal more professional?

The interest in micro-targeting is just the latest example of Labor’s long-standing enthusiasm for technological innovation in campaign management. In my research of national campaign managers, published this week as The Professionals, I trace the evolution – the professionalisation – of campaign management in Australia from pre-television days through to the micro-targeting of 2013.

Labor was the first to exploit the potential of national television advertising (1972) and to use qualitative market research to defend an incumbent government’s marginal seats (1980s). Labor pioneered direct mail (1987) and mounted the first integrated web-based campaign (“Kevin ‘07”).

Yet for all these great leaps forward, Labor’s professionalisation also suffered from backsliding and forgetfulness. Despite public funding – another Labor innovation – its finances have lurched from crisis to crisis. Labor has indulged in four recent election campaigns – 1996, 2004, 2010 and 2013 – so lacking in strategic unity and discipline that no amount of technological wizardry could save the party.

If the Labor Party has been the party of technological innovation, the Liberals have been the party of managerial stability. Their path to professionalism was less traumatic and more deliberate.

The Liberals were the first to pay their national party officials (in 1945) and first to accommodate them in national headquarters in Canberra (1965). Their federal directors have served longer and – except for a bout of bloodletting after losing office in 1972 – more stable terms than their Labor counterparts.

Recent Liberal campaigns have disciplined the political leadership within the head office campaign strategy, never better than in 2013 under federal director Brian Loughnane.

Yet the Liberals also struggled to overcome deep-seated rivalries between the national and state head offices. They pocketed their share of public funding without scruple, for example, but squabbled endlessly about how to share the bounty.

Taken together, Labor, it appears, was the more professional party in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and again through the 1980s into the 1990s, and again in 2007. At other times, including most of the 2000s to the present day, the Liberals have had the upper hand in professionalism.

Micro-targeting may best suit the left

While Labor pursues micro-targeting, the Liberal head office appears more wary, sceptical about the cost and effort of maintaining databases. Of course, given the 2013 cakewalk, they didn’t have to do much innovation to win. And they did invest heavily, and they claim successfully, in a social media campaign.

Beyond these considerations there is some evidence – mostly from the US – that micro-targeting is a style of campaigning that favours parties on the left. Democratic Party skills in voter analysis powered back-to-back presidential victories by Barack Obama. These technical skills, according to journalist Sasha Issenberg, are far superior to those of the Republicans.

Labor is seeking to take the grassroots impact of the ACTU’s ‘Your Rights at Work’ campaign and use its powerful voter database to refine its targets. AAP/Mark Graham

In Australia, the trade union movement’s tradition of face-to-face, grassroots organising underpinned its highly effective “Your Rights at Work” campaign against the Howard government’s WorkChoices legislation. George Wright was directly involved in that campaign in his time at the ACTU. He carreis that expertise into the electoral arena as organiser-in-chief of the Labor Party.

Critics will worry about the “Big Brother” implications of campaigns built around intensive mining of private data, especially in light of the Edward Snowden revelations and the intrusive ubiquity of social media giants Facebook and Google.

Where does this leave members?

There may be a positive side to the story as well. Following decades of declining membership in both political parties, the micro-targeting campaign may bring about a revival of the party member.

The television campaign leaves nothing much for members to do at election times except hand out how-to-vote cards on election day itself: time-honoured but scarcely decisive. Party branches have shut down and “hollowed out” parties face an existential crisis.

By contrast, micro-targeting requires large numbers of volunteers. They are needed to staff call centres and knock on doors to engage voters in (often scripted and highly directed) conversations.

Equally, micro-targeted campaigning provides a valuable new revenue stream for political parties, which must reduce their reliance on business donations, with all the associated risks of corruption and special favours. A critical element of the micro-targeted campaign is to encourage popular participation through online fund-raising. Labor claims that this form of high-volume, low-value giving was its “biggest single funding source” in last year’s campaign.

If this 21st-century form of activism does represent the future, party membership may well lose any remnant deliberative or participative function, while being wholly repurposed as a trained volunteer campaign army. This may provide a new and, arguably, worthwhile avenue for citizen engagement in short-term, focused campaigning and restore the relevance of parties as vehicles for political participation.

It’s unlikely to reduce the influence of the party professionals. They will continue to manage the operation from the centre.