Policy debates in the Internet Age

December 5, 2012

Technology is changing how power struggles are waged between the White House and Congress. For the last few years, negotiations between Democratic and Republican leaders have too often led to stalemate. The battle over how to avert the “fiscal cliff” is the latest example.

Since President Barack Obama’s reelection, he has begun to shift strategies — taking his case directly to the American people as a way to pressure Congress. After all, members of Congress ignore their president without penalty, but ignoring the opinions of their constituents can cost them their jobs.

Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton both effectively used television to address the nation when facing off against a House of Representatives controlled by the opposing party. While TV will remain important, going directly to the American people continue to morph in the era of the Internet. Political messages can be customized and narrowly targeted.

Much of the political broadcasting of the past may ultimately be replaced by political narrowcasting. We saw this already during the 2012 presidential campaign — candidates began with broad appeals to the nation and ended up focusing on a relatively few undecided and therefore persuadable groups living in key swing states like Ohio and Virginia.

We may even see specific groups of American citizens playing the role of jury, as they are bombarded with carefully tailored appeals from both sides, while the rest of us remain apart from all the sound and fury.

On the Internet, messages can be customized based on the recipient’s congressional district. This could allow Obama, who never has to run for reelection again, to directly challenge every opposing member of Congress by name during the 2014 elections — especially those who won narrowly in 2012.

Political messages can be fitted to the interests and political leanings of each recipient. For example, as the president makes the case for his energy policy, he could emphasize to some the jobs this policy could create, to others the environmental benefits – depending on their interests.

Obama’s targeted messaging probably begins with the treasure-trove of information collected for his re-election campaign. In addition to email addresses, the re-election campaign staff also knows where supporters live, and even which issues interest them most. In supplying information to voters, the re-election team regularly asked about their interests, in addition to basics like their home zip code and perhaps a Facebook account. The team could also have maintained a record of which position papers a voter views, and the campaign events she signs up for.

When a customized email now asks one of these supporters to contact his representative in Congress about tax reform, for example, the request can include the telephone number to call and specifics on what that representative has said and done about tax policy — perhaps affecting that representative’s standing in the polls in the process.

The request could also urge supporters to use social media such as Facebook and Twitter to influence friends and neighbors.

The Republican Party and many other organizations can, of course, use these same techniques. But the Obama re-election campaign reportedly used sophisticated methods of analysis, and it looks like the GOP probably now lags behind the president’s re-election team in information and organization.

Though email is powerful and free, it is most useful for reaching those who want to be reached. To bring targeted messaging to a broader audience, including those swing voters who will likely decide the 2014 congressional elections, political leaders and other organizations could turn to the advertisements that people see as they browse the Web.

There is a common misconception that these online ads are like billboards, which look the same to everyone driving by. In reality, however, many online ads are selected specifically for the person viewing them, not far from the advertising posters in the sci-fi movie, “Minority Report,” which speak directly to the characters walking by.

Consider, when you access a website, it knows from your IP (Internet protocol) address roughly where you are located, and can show you an ad praising or condemning the member of Congress representing your congressional district. When choosing which ad you should see, this site can also use a variety of techniques to know which websites you frequent, which Google searches you have tried this month, or the value of homes in your neighborhood — all to get a better idea of where you stand on the big issue of the day.

If targeted messaging becomes an important force in policy debates, the impact will depend on which groups are being targeted. As both sides seek to reach beyond their base to swing voters in contested congressional districts, this may even give our leaders a newfound incentive to work together toward shared solutions.

While many activists like to hear the kind of tough rhetoric that leaves little room for compromise, a politician usually gets more support from swing voters with pragmatic proposals that actually can get things done.

PHOTO: Campaign staff in President Barack Obama’s Chicago campaign headquarters, May 12, 2011. REUTERS/John Gress  

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