This article in the New Yorker is one of more perceptive summaries of the goings on in politics today and how it meshes with the research in political science in recent years–and how the latter has informed campaigns. What political science supposedly taught campaigners is the art of micro-campaigning, of designing campaigns aimed at voters with specific proclivities, backed by “data science,” and attempting to hit their specific triggers that would bring them out. That a vast number of American voters simply don’t care to vote, and that they are broadly characterized by certain commonly held characteristics and viewpoints did not enter into calculations. Thus, much has been made of the careful data-based ground game waged by the likes of Barak Obama and Ted Cruz and how they achieved marginal gains with these small groups of non- or infrequent voters, and how, after spending much money going after many of these different groups, they could mobilize the voters in large numbers.
In case of the Trump campaign, in particular, the absence of the ground game has been much spoken of. In case of the Sanders campaign, the ground game is both extensive and very careful, but it is definitely true that the focus is as much on the big message targeted at broad audiences as microtargeting small audiences.
The logic of microtargeting is, of course, hardly new in American politics: as David Brady noted, the defining feature of American parties is that there are made up of hundreds of small parties, centered around individual candidates catering to smallish local audiences, with the overall party reputation playing a relatively small role. The greater irony of the modern microtargeting, in a way, is that this has been deemed to be important even as the party reputations have grown ever so important and politics nationalized, leaving very little wiggle room as to how these varying audiences can be approached. Technology does make it possible to target them more precisely, but what messages can these technological innovations deliver beyond the party reputation? There may be some cute slogans and exhortations, but not really the kind of goods of substantive value to the voters delivered as Jamie Whitten did with dozens of pork barrel projects benefitting his Mississippi district. In other words, a lot of cheap talk, personalized for specific audiences and delivered via high tech, but still cheap. Not exactly a game changer, except in cost of campaigning. Agenda setting and nationalized party reputation–basically, the conventional politics–did most of the mobilization. Technology and money added only to the margins.
It is not so much that the presence of the many missing voters was actively ignored. Rather, catering to them was just too inconvenient for them. Low tech–in other words, poor and undereducated–voters would not have been so impressed by fancy high tech gimmicry–even if they could be targeted by such things effectively. Having to address their policy desires would upset many, eh, more “important” people in politics. So successful mobilization of thousands at millions per pop is lionized as grand achievement of the new age while millions of nonvoters are ignored–until, that is, people who don’t care much for the conventional politics, as they themselves have not been at the core of the agenda-setting elite find the opportunity to enter the fray. Typical.