The much lauded Obama ’08 campaign led the way when it came to utilising social media and digital tools to engage, empower and mobilise the public during an election.
Since then many attempts have been made, both in the UK and abroad, to replicate the methods and reproduce the perceived effects of the digital techniques employed by the Obama campaign. However despite the increased investment and growing popularity of digital tools in election campaigns, there is as yet no clear evidence of how far they are actually being used by political parties and candidates internationally, and crucially whether or not they actually work in terms of mobilising voters and generating electoral support.
As part of our ESRC sponsored Chalk + Talk seminar series Rachel Gibson, Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester, presented her research on digital campaigning techniques, the evolution of their use by political parties and their effectiveness.
The ‘four phases’ of digital adoption and adaptation by parties
Digital tools and the internet were used in the US as early as the 1992 Bush vs Clinton US Presidential race, while in the UK all major parties set up basic websites during the 1997 election, with the BBC covering the campaign on it’s ’97 election website. Professor Gibson acknowledges these examples as the first of four distinct phases of digital adoption and adaptation by political parties.
The second phase saw a period of ‘standardisation and normalisation’. In the UK parties’ sites started to take on a more professional appearance by the late 1990s. However, parties were often simply moving offline content online, leading to websites that were just digital copies of text found in manifestos. The most important development in this second phase was the shift in control over web presence and digital content away from IT departments to the campaigns and communications sections of parties.
The advent of web 2.0, where the internet became focused on the ability of people to collaborate and share information online, and early social media platforms in the mid-2000s offered party campaigners their biggest opportunity. This third phase saw parties attempt to build communities of existing supporters, utilising websites, email and social media to attempt to boost their participation. Inside parties the web campaign team became a unit in its own right. Here we reach the opus of the Obama ’08 campaign and its digitisation of successful offline community organising techniques, with digital control moving downward to ‘citizen-campaigners’.
The contemporary ‘fourth’ phase focuses on mobilisation and data analytics. Having consolidated existing support and built a network of grassroots campaigners, parties are now focusing on utilising the social media spaces of these groups to promote more indirect contact and identify new voters. Data analytics and modelling are the new wave of campaign management – the aim is now to be able to build databases which allow micro-targeting of sections of society, or even individual voters, according to their particular priorities.
Where is it happening?
A lack of comparative international data has made measuring how widespread digital campaigning techniques are very difficult. However Professor Gibson outlined a new standardised source which allows us to attempt to measure parties’ efforts in digital campaigning – the latest Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES) survey. An early release of its latest wave demonstrates the wide variation in use of online vs offline campaigning techniques across 11 countries (see chart below).
Why does this variation occur? Professor Gibson suggests that electoral systems could have an impact on the techniques employed. For example, more candidate or constituency focused systems will have a greater level of localised offline campaigning comparative to list based or presidential systems. The regulatory environment for campaigns is also likely to have a huge impact on parties’ ability to target specific voters and utilise data analytics.
Who does it reach?
The pooled CSES data Professor Gibson presented showed that online targets of party campaigning tend to look different compared to the general population and those more likely to be targeted by traditional techniques – they tend to more often be male, have strong party identification, higher levels of education, and higher incomes. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study also showed age as a key determinant of whether or not you were likely to be contacted online by parties.
A comparison of available UK and US data revealed some interesting results. In the US, where 17% of population reported direct online contact from parties, the demographics of engagement are largely the same for both online and offline campaigning methods. However in the UK, where only 3% reported direct online contact by parties, the profile of people contacted online differs greatly from those contacted offline.
Does it work? Implications for the 2015 UK General Election?
Professor Gibson’s latest analysis considers whether people who were contacted online were more likely to vote. The initial results appear to show no real impact across the population. However, when she drilled down further the impact of online indirect contact appeared significant – particularly for the young, who were significantly more likely to vote if they experienced this kind of contact – and for older voters, who were significantly less likely to vote if exposed to indirect contact.
Judging by the evidence so far it seems that, in the UK at least, this is where the potential of digital campaigning is mostly concentrated: indirect peer-to-peer communication among younger voters. The limitations of online campaigning as a direct tool appear to be its limited reach into a narrow pool of voters who are already highly mobilised. Looking to the US however where rates of online contact are almost 10 times greater – we can see a broadening in reach to a much wider, less distinctive group. The challenge for UK parties therefore is to increase the rates of online contact. Those who do this successfully can expect to reap the rewards of communicating tailored messages to far wider sections of electorate.
Alongside this blog, you can catch up on Chalk + Talk sessions via Twitter using #SMFchalktalk or by listening to our podcast below.
Chalk + Talk is the SMF’s popular lunchtime seminar series, run in partnership with the ESRC. Chalk + Talk brings the best policy output from the world of academia into the heart of Westminster.