Higher Ground Labs produced a very necessary review of the political technology landscape recently that we feel is worth reflecting on. Despite being focused on the US market and more specifically the federal campaigns segment of that market, I think it is still instructive of the way in which political tech is changing and the way technology is changing democracy. Here is a look at the overview visual of the landscape in 2018.
What do we mean by political technology?
When we think about political technology though we do not think about booking TV spots or running a Facebook ad. These are simply communication technologies that happen to hoover up a lot of political campaign spending. When we think about political technology we usually think of voter outreach tools like mobile canvassing apps, phonebanking systems and the integrated voter/membership management systems that make grassroots political campaigning possible.
What is the landscape split into?
Messaging and media Digital advertising, TV ads, Social networks, Websites, Email and PR.
Data Analytics: Voter data sets, Campaign team analytics, Data analysis.
Organisational Infrastructure: Voter CRM systems, Campaign strategy, Membership management.
Fundraising: Donor CRM, Payment processor.
Voter Engagement: Phone banking, Canvassing apps.
Volunteer Mobilization: Campaign team manager, Peer-to-peer texting.
Research: Polling apps, Social listening tools.
Spending versus international norms
What this research shows very clearly is that thefederal campaigns market is dominated by spending on advertising and messaging through both traditional media and the newer digital/social media. Over half of all spending is on this way of communicating to the electorate. The rest is divided between organizing tools, voter outreach tech, analytics, fundraising and infrastructure.
This emphasis on advertising spending to convince voters to vote is not, of course, as prominent in most other countries. In Europe, for example, spending on television advertising is often illegal or just not part of the political culture. Most other countries do not have anything like the amount of money raised or spent in an election campaign that would be normal in the US.
Trend over the last decade
Broadly speaking, over the past decade since Obama’s first technology-driven campaign, the spending on political technology has ebbed and flowed from email tools, to voter outreach apps and community organizing tech. At the same time there has been a steady flow of money away from traditional advertising methods towards digital ad methods.
Cyclical nature of development
Unlike other industries where the pace of technology development is relatively steady, political technology develops to the rhythm of election cycles where election years result in large spending sprees and off-years are used to develop new technology.
The amount of money being spent in an election year in the US across all campaigns is currently higher than $10 billion and is growing steadily cycle to cycle. With this level of spending political technology should be more advanced but the cyclical nature of campaigning does seem to have a negative impact on the adoption of new tech and its stickiness when it is adopted. Campaign staffers who are often left to find other jobs when election day is over, come back to the industry a year or so later and have to learn a different technology or ways of doing things.
What can we learn from reviewing where the money is spent in political campaigns though? Primarily we learn from the money trail that organizational structure + voter outreach + messaging and media + fundraising + analytics = campaigns. Even though this is the overview of political tech spending, it probably holds for all political spending where things like direct mailers, transport spending, campaign events, and so on can fit into the subheadings already outlined by the technology spend.
Steady development over the past decade has put tools of great power into the hands of politicians and political parties. As always following the money, in this case, the amounts spent on each element of campaigning gives us insight into what is deemed most important. What is heartening to see is that there is a strong proliferation of grassroots engagement tools that seek to build relationships with the electorate rather than simply influence them. It will be instructive to review the landscape of political technology again after the next presidential election year in 2020 to see how this has developed.
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