In every major campaign, there are candidates that stick to the tried and tested, and those that go out of their way to try something new. Novel technologies often form a key part of this, as campaign teams battle to grab the headlines with their candidates and present them as innovative and forward-looking.
Some technologies, like social media, begin as novel concepts but go on to become staples of the campaign. Back in 2008 the Obama campaign appeared radical and progressive for its use of social media, and in the UK the Liberal Democrats’ shock gains in the 2010 general election were helped along by the majority of students being friends with deputy leader Menzies Campbell on Facebook.
Some technologies begin as novel concepts but go on to become staples of the campaign
Now social media is so common that leaders from across the world have Twitter accounts, comments made on social platforms have become staples for news stories and 2016 US presidential hopeful Rand Paul has been dubbed ‘troller in chief’ for his over-use of social media to criticise opponents.
Other technologies, however, fail to become accepted, as they simply don’t produce the desired effect in terms of gaining voter support. Some campaign teams will test them out in a bid to get a slice of the excitement over a passing technological trend, but ultimately they’ll be abandoned, consigned to being anecdotal examples given by political technology experts, such as online virtual world Second Life.
“When Second Life was having its big heyday, I think that there were a lot of campaigns that really tried to jump onto the Second Life train just to say ‘hey, we did this’, and most of them didn’t do very well with it. It wasn’t quite there yet,” explains Michael Turk, former eCampaign director for the Bush/Cheney 2004 presidential race and president of political outreach consultancy Opinion Mover Strategies.
One technology that is at risk of finding itself of the pile of forgotten political tech is holograms, although there is still some hope for it.
Depicted in Futurama to enable a challenger to Richard Nixon’s Head to make simultaneous appearances in diners across the land in the episode Decision 3012, holograms have seen serious and highly successful use in political campaigns away from US shores. India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi made use of the technology in 2014 as part of his highly successful campaign to enter office, enabling him to address attendees of around a hundred different rallies simultaneously in locations hundreds of miles apart.
Image courtesy of Namo Gujarat
Holograms were undoubtedly a success in India, providing an unorthodox way to give a sense of personal attention to voters in the world’s largest electorate, in a country 9,300 miles long and 1,800 miles wide, and they have helped to generate a wave of support that ultimately resulted in Mondi’s campaign building spectacular momentum. It also enabled rural areas with poor digital infrastructure to be reached, providing a solution that a regular YouTube video would not have offered.
However, while holograms have very much shown their worth in India, their benefits elsewhere remain to be seen. Only one other politician, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been recorded as using a hologram. There have been predictions for some time about its use on US soil, but whether any of the candidates in the 2016 US presidential election take the plunge remains to be seen – and there is a fair amount at stake.
“When I think of holograms, I still think of CNN a few years ago during coverage where they had will.i.am via hologram and just looked goofy and cheesy in a way,” says Turk. “There’s danger in using technologies that are interesting but not quite where they need to be, and in American politics we tend to think of what looks or doesn’t look presidential, and holograms are kind of an interesting thing, but I think they’re not quite at a point where they meet the bar of what looks presidential.”
But with renewed interest in holograms, and investment in boosting the technology, there is still a possibility it could appear in US politics, even if it doesn’t become a campaigning classic.
Campaigning in the virtual world
Virtual reality is coming, and by the time voters are making their choice in Decision 2016, consumer headsets will have been out for some time. At this point, it will be more surprising if candidates don’t make use of the technology than if they do.
“I would not be surprised some time in the next year to see candidates messing with the Oculus Rift platform, and finding ways to deliver interesting content that way for the novelty of it, but I don’t know if it’s going to have a huge effect on the electorate,” says Turk.
Some political content relating to the US elections is already available in VR. A speech by Bernie Sanders, for example, is available as a VR video through YouTube, although this has not been arranged by Sanders’ campaign team.
Future political elections may well find VR playing a larger role, in much the same way as happened with the internet
As news content providers look to forge a space in VR, there will undoubtedly be the opportunity to view speeches and campaign information in VR, but how far this will go and whether it will include content made by the candidates is as yet unclear.
However, if VR progresses as it looks set to – increasing in graphical quality and user base over the next few years – future political elections may well find VR playing a larger role, in much the same way as happened with the internet. Countries that see a higher-than-average uptake of VR will almost certainly see political campaigning move to this platform first, and in time this will spread to other countries as trends change.
Of course, with image being so important, one of the key moments may be when custom, highly personalisable avatars become available for the VR web, enabling candidates to chat to prospective voters in a truly presidential form.
Gaming: the established future
One technological area that has already enjoyed major support is the use of in-game advertising as a means to reach younger voters. Implemented in Obama’s campaigns, these proved a successful way of reaching voters who were less likely to watch TV and, having passed the novelty test, look set to become a firm staple in many political campaigns.
Image and featured image courtesy of EA Games
“They were actually running ads in Xbox games, so when you were in a racing game as you were racing down the street, there would be a billboard; you had a Vote for Barack Obama billboard in the game,” Turk explains. “When you were playing Madden NFL they actually had a little ad that ran inside your player stats so that they could target youth voters that were connected to those gaming platforms.
“That, I thought, was a very good use of technology, because it’s a developed system, it’s something that resonates with the right audience. I think that more campaigns should look at the Xbox and Playstation gaming platforms in terms of delivering ads, and in terms of communicating with people.”
Lowering campaigning costs
Technology is not only producing new ways for candidates to campaign, but also enabling them to reach large numbers of people more cheaply. In the US campaign, this is being seen through an increased but thoughtful use of digital tools to replace traditional physical events, which – provided they are done right – can be pulled off for a lower outlay.
“You see people launching their campaigns on YouTube, and the Clinton campaign not launching with a rally, and doing some things which in the past may have been considered strange departures from the usual playbook, and I think that’s mostly a reflection of the deeper, smarter understanding of the landscape in which they’re operating,” says Michael Slaby, former chief integration and innovation officer for the 2012 Obama campaign.
In local politics, where budgets are considerably lower, digital has taken over almost completely
“A thoughtful digital launch gives them an opportunity to launch at a bigger scale with fewer resources than they might be able to do with trying to build a massive rally with some kind of TV event early in a campaign when you’re short-staffed – that’s really hard to pull off, but smart, thoughtful content distributed in interesting social ways lets you have a lot of reach early on.”
In local politics, where budgets are considerably lower, digital has taken over almost completely.
“I think digital campaigning already dominates the campaign process, especially for local elections,” says Rocky Slaughter, co-founder of Sugar Pine Media, who runs local political action committee REVIVE Redding and was involved in several successful local campaigns in California last year.
“Digital technologies were absolutely essential for our wins last year. Without organising our supporters in a database and calling them directly, we would have spent a lot of time and effort on things that simply did not turn out voters. Our opponents relied on signs, direct mail, and TV/radio commercials and that simply does not work anymore. Our social media profiles had thousands of likes. Theirs had hundreds.”
Of course, while voter outreach has been made cheaper through digital means, the technological possibilities have increased, meaning that the sky is the limit for those with the money to spend.
Whether effective, large-scale campaigns really can be run on a shoestring is debatable, but with the right team, a campaign can undoubtedly reach more people for less outlay. Maybe one day it could even let a would-be David topple a political Goliath.