Big Data, Business, and Politics

Some candidates in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary are marketing themselves like products, running solely on familiarity—presumably like the familiarity of your favorite neighborhood restaurant or a carmaker whose models you keep buying over the years. Others are using a radically different approach: They are building movements while they campaign, because they see themselves as activist leaders, not products. So these campaigns are building movements, “thoughtfully and deliberately designed to create an unprecedented grassroots movement driven by hundreds of thousands of volunteers.”

We hear and read these all the time: shallow comparisons between running businesses and running political campaigns—particularly where the use of data, social media, and other infotech are concerned.

It’s not entirely unfounded. After all, big political firms do make many of the same mistakes that businesses make where tech and data are concerned. For example, while I might not put it in the stark terms that he does, there’s something to Igor Lys’s comments in a recent post that many of the promises of big data in politics, just as in business, are false, based on the assumption that “big data allows reliable prediction.” I do think it’s futile to “predict” outcomes and instead that it’s better to use data in combination with other forms of information gathering. Lys agrees, writing that “the real use these people make of massive data collection and analysis concerns less the prediction and the manipulation of the future result, than the better analysis of the already existing ones.”

Political campaigns might also parallel business practices in efforts to capture email addresses of visitors that don’t end up donating money (or in business parlance, buy the product). Such sites might use pop-up windows to offer free newsletter subscriptions in exchange for an email address and use email append and verification services to build powerful databases of supporter contacts and preferences.

But while both political campaigns and businesses analyze data and collect contact info, I am also cautious about drawing too many parallels between, on the one hand, an endeavor whose primary goal is to make profits and one whose primary goal is to engage people into voting for, financially supporting, and working for political candidates or issues.

Here’s why political engagement, even through data use, is different from profit-seeking: Profits are extracted from workers’ labor and paid to owners or shareholders. These are very exclusive dividends. But political support grows as relationships among people. Political support, and political solidarity, are not finite and can’t be exclusively owned or claimed. A group of volunteers for a campaign may feel that political energy growing inside of them and when they share it with others, that energy grows rather than thins out. I don’t have less of it when I give it to you.  

This is why it’s important to use data in combination with direct political participation, such as social media engagement, canvassing, and campaign communications. For example, you can use your data to plan solid social media messaging strategies, to nuance the language on a candidate or issue website, or to pick the appropriate language for your campaign emails. Those messages invite different kinds of interaction, from campaign volunteers reaching out to vocal supporters of a campaign on social media, to a web form offering many different options for a supporter’s participation. Businesses sell products and services and the entire process is rather binary: will you buy the thing, if yes, then profit into the hands of owners and shareholders. There’s not much else a loyal customer can do beyond buy more products and refer others to do the same.

None of this is to say that pouring massive amounts of money into big data operations will have an effect even if it doesn’t help build an organic movement. Michael Bloomberg’s plan to use big data to help defeat Trump is a notable example of an effort that will probably have an effect even if it doesn’t empower people politically beyond voting. But an approach that includes participation and lots of interaction produces organizations —like Bernie Sanders’ campaign— that have strength beyond their numbers.

And, although I recently wrote that small donor acquisition efforts rely on creating a sense of urgency (which some may see as similar to creating consumer desire), these efforts are really ultimately about creating political communities. Sure, we can tailor social media ad campaigns based on appeals to different interests and demographics, but the end goal is to get invite these people’s participation through small donations as alternatives to courting large sums of corporate or millionaire money. And such courtship of small donors almost always includes inviting them into the interactive and participatory aspects of a campaign.

This isn’t some hypothetical or abstract philosophical assumption. Key voting blocs for the Democrats want big ideas and morally sound positions from candidates going into 2020. Knowing the difference in ethos between a political campaign and a business selling products or services is critical in appealing to the values of those voters who will create a new majority in the coming decades.

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Who is Mike Gravel?

Who is Mike Gravel?

Adriel has been volunteering with the Mike Gravel 2020 campaign as it seeks to qualify this anti-war candidate for the Democratic Primary Election debates. This is a guest post from Duncan Gammie. 

Mike Gravel is running for President and needs your help. But who is he? Gravel, the 88 year old former Senator from Alaska made history in 1971 when he read the Pentagon Papers into the Congressional Record, and is attempting to make history again in 2020 with his campaign for President. Gravel has a strong record as an anti-war, anti-imperialist politician, and has decided to enter the race for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination in order to force certain issues in foreign policy and domestic. The campaign needs sixty-five thousand individual donations to make it to the debate stage, and so far has more donations than many of the other so-called ‘mainstream’ campaigns. In 2008, the last time Gravel ran for President, he made it onto the Democratic debate stage and made a strong performance that continues to resonate today. It is interesting to note that many of the issues that Gravel forced back in 2008, and for which he was roundly disparaged by the pundit class, have entered mainstream Democratic discourse.

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“Anti-war.” – photo by Eric Kelly,  erickelly.us

This time, the rules are different. The idea behind having individual donations become a benchmark for who gets in the debates or not was due in part to the paradigm shift in campaign funding brought on by the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign. Today, small-dollar donations (and currently the Gravel campaign is asking folks to donate as little as one dollar, if only to meet the requirement to enter the debates) are a significant indicator of grassroots support for your campaign – which, if true, would suggest that Mike Gravel’s 2020 campaign for President, in terms of how much people have decided to donate already, has much more support than campaigns that were thought to be front runners. It is also important to note that the overall number of donations is the best indicator of such grassroots support, rather than total fundraising, since the latter could be achieved with a few high-dollar donors. To donate to the Mike Gravel 2020 campaign is easy, and you can donate online. Gravel has long had a history of bucking the party establishment, and forgoing the easy route many politicians take of catering to their wealthy donors’ every whim, and instead has decided to fight for the rights of all people. His anti-war record has been vindicated again and again by the judgements of history, and it is time to bring Mike Gravel onto the Democratic debate stage once more – and now that it is so easy way to donate, there truly is no excuse.

Stephen Jaffe is Running for Congress in San Francisco vs. Rep. Nancy Pelosi

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If you want to take out corporate Democrats, look no further than your backyard, San Franciscans. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is the embodiment of a political machine that values winning – and the money that helps folks win regardless of values – above all.

That’s why I’m working with Stephen Jaffe, a 46-year career civil rights attorney and first-time candidate who stands for progressive values:

  • Restrain U.S. military adventures
  • Pass single payer health care
  • Women’s health and right to choose
  • End the school to prison pipeline
  • Protect cities from gentrification
  • Police brutality
  • Fight global warming
  • No more dirty energy subsidies
  • Stop dirty corporate money
  • Campaign finance reform
  • $15 minimum wage
  • End homelessness
  • Decriminalize mental illness
  • Abolish mandatory arbitration
  • Ensure integrity of the courts
  • Protect religious rights, and the right to no religion
  • Protect animal rights
  • End superdelegates
  • Fund the Arts
  • Free and open internet

San Francisco, let’s help this Berniecrat see Adachi/Gonzalez style support in taking on the legacy of the Brown-Burton machine before it gets another generation.