Digital Strategies an Important Weapon in the Election Arsenal

13 Jul 2015

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Journalism Professor Daniel Kreiss (Crisis of Journalism) investigates a new breed of election worker – knowledgeable in digital strategies. His new study considers how campaigns are affected.

STI Experts

You will be presenting your paper at the upcoming American Political Science Association Annual Meeting. Would you share some of your main findings?

Over the past decade, digital media, data, and analytics have grown to be an important part of U.S. political campaigns’ tactical arsenals. We have seen this play out already during the U.S. 2016 presidential election cycle. This year, as in 2008, Hillary Clinton elected to announce her candidacy for president by posting a video on her campaign website. Ted Cruz chose to make his announcement with a late night tweet. Even candidates who have gone the more traditional route and announced their candidacy with a speech are increasingly using digital media to enhance the reach of their formal entrance in the race. As a part of Jeb Bush’s announcement event, the campaign invited supporters and viewers to “experience” the event and go behind-the-scenes with video posted on the social sharing app Snapchat. Behind the scenes, campaigns use the data generated by social media to build lists of supporters and compile digital dossiers on them in the search for funds and volunteers.

All of which indicates the considerable and growing importance of campaigns’ digital, data, and analytics operations on campaigns. But this still leaves us with the questions of how campaigns keep up with the rapid pace of technological change, such as the proliferation of new social media platforms, and find the expertise necessary to wield these new tools effectively.

Our study sought to answer these questions by charting the careers of digital, data, and analytics staffers in presidential primary and general election campaigns from 2004 to 2012, and their roles in founding political consultancies. Using a unique dataset of U.S. Federal Election Commission and other data coupled with data from the professional social networking site LinkedIn, we traced the career paths of 626 staffers active in presidential campaigns from 2004-2012.  We wanted to learn from what professional fields these individuals entered electoral politics, and what they went on to do following their campaign work.

What we found surprised us. Very few staffers had any previous political campaign experience, and many came from the technology industry and commercial sectors into politics – suggesting that digital, data, and analytics are, at best, unevenly professionalized areas on campaigns.  What this suggests is that campaigns are looking outside of politics to find the expertise they need to innovate in rapidly changing technological environments. For example, only 72 of the 339 staffers from the Obama 2012 campaign had any previous campaign experience. If we look back at Obama 2008, a similar pattern occurs. Of the 132 staffers from that particular campaign, only 14 had previous campaign experience.

Were these patterns similar across parties and election cycles?

There were substantial differences in the hiring practices of the Democratic and Republican parties. The Democratic Party has invested considerably more in the areas of digital, data, and analytics. For example, the Romney 2012 campaign only hired 90 staffers in these areas while the Obama campaign hired 339 staffers. This was also the case in 2008, where Obama had 132 such staffers while McCain only had 16. Democrats also had an advantage in attracting staffers with professional backgrounds in commercial technology and data/analytics – the fields most likely to have the pool of talent required for such positions. Obama’s 2012 campaign had 48 staffers with a primarily technology or data and analytics background, while Romney had only 7.

Party differences also extended to these staffers’ founding of firms following their respective campaigns. Of the 94 unique firms founded after presidential campaigns by these staffers, 75 were founded by Democrats and 19 by Republicans. Taking Obama’s 2012 campaign as an example again, 27 staffers went on to found 24 unique firms. In contrast, 8 Romney staffers went on to found 8 unique firms.

There were also some surprising differences within parties. As an example, Obama’s 2008 primary bid had 54 digital, data and analytics staffers. Four of these staffers had backgrounds in technology or data and analytics and only 11 had previous campaign experience. Of these staffers, twelve of them went on to found 13 unique firms. Compare this to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary bid, which had 10 digital, data and analytics staffers. Only one person had a background in technology or data and analytics, and only 3 had previous campaign experience. This underscores the varied professionalization of campaigns’ digital, data and analytics staffs, as well as the considerable differences in patterns of investment found within parties in addition to between parties.

How did you collect this data?

We started by compiling a list of staffers who had worked on presidential primary and general election campaigns’ digital, data and analytics operations between 2004 and 2012. We constructed this dataset using Federal Election Commission filings and other data on campaign staffers compiled by the nonprofit, nonpartisan organization Democracy in Action. We then used LinkedIn data and resumes from personal or company websites to add data about the professional careers of these staffers. We then systematically and categorically coded the career backgrounds of these staffers: commercial industry, journalism/entertainment, and government to name a few.

You mentioned 2016. What might some of the implications of this study be as we look towards the next presidential race?

The data from this study reveal that political campaigns and political parties are increasingly investing in the areas of digital, data, and analytics. The growth in these areas from 2004 through 2012, on both sides of the aisle, has been spectacular, and we expect that this will continue in 2016. It is also clear that the firms servicing these areas on campaigns are growing in number, and – although we could not observe it directly – these firms carry technological innovations that occur on presidential campaigns to down-ballot races.

Despite this investment on both sides of the aisle, it also appears Democrats will continue to have the advantage when it comes to finding the necessary talent to build and support a modern digital, data, and analytics operation. Indeed, what is clear from our data is that the Democrats have built an impressively deep talent pool of staffers working in digital, data, and analytics who have had presidential campaign experience, and campaigns in 2016 and the future can draw upon this resource. 

The Republicans are playing catch-up from a decade of comparative underinvestment in digital, data, and analytics. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to keep an eye out for how Republican primary candidates, and ultimately the nominee, handle investments and staffing in the areas of digital, data, and analytics.

At the same time, we believe that heading into 2016 the areas of digital, data, and analytics will continue to be open to people who are not political professionals.  In an era of rapid changes in media, from the emergence of new social media platforms and practices around them to the growing sophistication of database technology and analytic techniques, campaigns and parties need to find staff with specialized skills to wield these things for competitive electoral advantage. We anticipate that both parties will continue to supplement their homegrown political expertise and look outside the political field to find people with cutting edge skills honed in the commercial technology sector.

Read this story about Daniel Kreiss' study in the New York Times

Download "The Sources of Innovation in Political Communication: A Comparative Analysis of the
Careers of Digital, Data, and Analytics Staffers on Republican and Democratic Presidential Campaigns and Partisan Firm Founding, 2004-2012" by Daniel Kreiss and Christopher Jasinski

Visit Daniel Kreiss’ expert profile
​Visit the 'Crisis in Journalism' Experts Meeting page