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Digital Debates on the Campaign Trail


In the 2008 election the Obama campaign was widely credited for gaining an edge by understanding and using the power of social media to its advantage. A mere two years later, the Republicans got the memo and used new media to their advantage, taking control of the House and narrowing the gap in the Senate.

In her new book, Using Technology, Building Democracy: Digital Campaigning and the Construction of Citizenship (Oxford University Press, 2015) , Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, PhD, uses qualitative research to examine the digital strategies employed by both parties during the 2010 midterm elections. She also delves into how federal races now navigate “the post-Obama landscape.”

She said the Obama campaign’s digital strategy was not just about donations, web traffic, and “likes” that won the election; rather the campaign used the digital realm to engage the public in old-school retail campaigning.

“They sought to get citizens to engage more deeply, not just to give money,” said Baldwin-Philippi, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies. “They used the technology to get people onto the streets, to become precinct captains, and to go knock on doors. That’s why they won.”

Baldwin-Philippi historically contextualized the current use of big data analytics to the 1996 Clinton campaign’s use of “lifestyle targeting.” The Clinton campaign polled people and purchased data that included voters’ magazine subscriptions. But nowadays lifestyle targeting is far more specific. Campaign ads appearing on a husband’s Facebook or Youtube page could look quite different from his wife’s page, even though they may agree politically and share a demographic.

The book not only documents how campaigns uses of data are new, but how the messages they produce are changing too. Baldwin-Philippi delves into how the rise in fact checking has led to a healthy skepticism on the part of the public.

“Voters are nuancing the information that they are given now,” she said. “It’s much different than a 30-second TV spot. By default, on the web you’re able to put up reams of information about a candidate.”

Some of that information may be false and/or “in the service of negativity,” she said. But the atmospheric change has caused citizens to become more cautious with the information they consume.

And the public is also more in charge of how interactive it wants to be, she said. During the 2010 campaign, candidates’ staff, press people, and politicos engaged in a lively debate over how to deal with techno types with a utopian penchant for the free flow of information.

“There was this dual tension between asking citizens to engage, debate, and discuss on social media, and this huge fear of losing control,” said Baldwin-Philippi. “The press secretary types weren’t going to just let anyone post comments to the Facebook wall.”

She said that while campaigns still control the backend of their Facebook pages, as time has progressed they’ve loosened the reigns and permitted debate.

The end result has been mostly positive, with campaigns mining social media for “opinion leaders” that will repost as well as put in some real time at headquarters.

Baldwin-Philippi includes some quantitative analysis of campaign material content, but her focus is on qualitative study.

“I think that as we grapple with these new questions of what is happening and, more importantly, why it is happening, we need to provide qualitative data.”


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