Election campaigning has moved online, and so far Democrats have had the upper hand. But can the Koch brothers’ Themis database bring ‘electoral justice’ for the Republican Party in 2012? The Kernel’s politics columnist Joshua Lachkovic pens a special report.
Last month, details emerged that David and Charles Koch – more often known as the “Koch brothers” – plan to release a mega-database of those who sit on the Right in America. It will be called Themis, after the Greek Goddess.
Details of the database are sketchy. An initial Guardian report said it “will give concrete form to the vast network of alliances that David and Charles Koch have cultivated over the past 20 years”. Themis will connect Right-wing America – in particular the libertarian Right. Right-wing groups and lobbies, Tea Party organisations and think tanks whose “independence” lies on the right will all be joined and prepared for the 2012 US elections.
Themis, according to press reports, is based on Catalyst, a voter database of progressive and general Left-wing supporters in America, created following the defeat of John Kerry in 2004. The lead-up to the 2008 election marked one of the most substantial changes in political campaigning since the invention of the television, for the 2008 US election saw the first victory that can be attributed to digital media.
But can a database affect the outcome of a presidential election? And, more generally, what will the relationship between technology and political campaigning look like in next year’s election? The Republicans failed to utilise technology effectively in 2008, and it cost them dearly.
In the past two decades, the internet has gone from being entirely unimportant to being a defining factor in a presidential victory. Charles Koch describes the 2012 election as a battle “for the life or death” of America, but the Grand Old Party needs more than a database to retake the White House next year. Themis has been a year and a half in the making and has cost the Koch brothers $2.5m in seed money. $2.5m is, as most of the Left-wing sites and blogs never tire of mentioning, small change for the Koch brothers, whose wealth stands at around $35bn between them.
The brothers have, according to some estimates, given $100m to Right-wing causes over the years – a fact the American liberal Left hate. The money, for those unfamiliar with the esteemed pair, comes from their oil company, Koch Industries. In Forbes’ Largest Private Companies 2011 list, Koch Industries was placed second, with $100bn of revenues in 2011, beaten only by Cargill. Koch Industries operates oil refineries in Alaska, Minnesota and Texas, with pipelines extending over four thousand miles.
Along with cultural philanthropy – David Koch has donated $2.5m to the Metropolitan Opera House, $100m to Lincoln Center’s New York State Theatre, $20m to the American Museum of Natural History and $40m to the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center – the brothers have been huge backers of almost every conceivable libertarian cause. The pair has funded many think tanks and advocacy groups, including the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity (Greenpeace infamously called Koch Industries the “kingpin of climate science denial”), to say nothing of the money they have thrown – indirectly – into the Tea Party, or to the campaigns of Michelle Bachmann and Herman Cain.
For the Koch brothers, Themis, the Goddess of Justice, is an apt namesake: it is the project that will finally seek justice for the America that they feel has been lost to the progressive Left. Whatever influence the pair has had over the past two years in helping the Tea Party movement, the Themis database marks one of the boldest and most significant advances in their support and dedication to the GOP. The brothers once enjoyed a very secretive existence on the libertarian Right, but despite their refusal to comment publicly on the Themis database, they are secret no more. Since the Democratic victory in 2008, the Koch brothers have been at the forefront of the anti-Obama movement.The database is the brothers’ technological donation to the Republican Party, to fight in what Charles Koch calls “the mother of all wars” in 2012.
* * *
Throughout the first half of the 1990s, with the popularity of the web in its infancy, politics and the internet had very little to do with each other. But with the 1996 US election, political scientists finally felt the need to question the effect that digital media and the internet had on the voting public. By 2003, Caroline J Tolbert and Ramona S McNeal of Kent State University had published “Unravelling the Effects of the Internet on Political Participation”, which examined the effect that the internet had on voter turnout. The report, which used data collected by the American National Election Studies (NES), found that in 1996, 27 per cent of those who voted had access to the internet, with just seven per cent using the internet to access political information online. By 1998, 43 per cent of voters were now online but only 10 per cent used the internet to access politics-related material. By 2000, 63 per cent of voters were online, but – importantly – the percentage of those who used the internet to access political information nearly tripled, rising to 29 per cent.
This increase in the use of the internet was complemented by a decrease in engagement with traditional media. A Pew research paper released in 2000 found that in 1992, 55 per cent used television as their main source of presidential news and 57 per cent said newspapers were a primary source. By 2000, the television figures were at 22 per cent and the newspapers at 39 per cent. In the same year, 11 per cent of those surveyed said that the internet was their main source of presidential news.
Tolbert and McNeal’s conclusion is interesting to read in retrospect. They find that those who used the internet in the late 1990s were more likely to vote and that there was a definite “mobilizing potential of the internet” during elections. Using the terminology of Robert Putnam, they declared, “the internet may foster more ‘bonding’ among individuals with similar perspectives and interests, but less ‘bridging’ or tolerance”.
The 2000 presidential election was significant in terms of technology for another reason. One political figure had been utilising the internet long before the digital battle that would dominate the 2008 elections: the first ever politically targeted ad campaign online was run by Senator John McCain. McCain, who at the time was challenging the GOP frontrunner, George W Bush, for the party nomination, issued targeted banner ads on over 1,500 sites. The banner ads had a remarkable two per cent click-through rate and helped push McCain over the 10,000 signatures needed to put him on the Virginia Primary ballot. Despite McCain’s early use of the internet, Nancy Ives – a McCain spokesman in the 2000 campaign – admitted at the time they didn’t have “any specific details as to where they would go from there”.
By 2008, the “bonding” that Tolbert and McNeal spoke of was realised, and indeed that bonding effect seems to be what the Koch Brothers hope to achieve in 2012.
Catalyst took four years to develop and cost Harold Ickes, the Democratic media consultant, $15m to build. It was a database of 200 million Americans, their voting intention likelihood and other characteristics. Catalyst grouped voters by issues, by income, by family structure and by the times they were most likely to be at home. It created the backbone of a potentially very effective campaigning tool. Catalyst was based, as it happens, on a model called VoterVault – a basic database that Bush had used in 2000 and 2004. Barack Obama, however, more so than any presidential candidate before him, used Catalyst to great advantage.
Catalyst was created as a for-profit business and was independent of party alliance, though it was fully utilised by the Obama campaign. VoterVault, still being used by the Republicans in 2008, was owned by the Republican National Committee. On the face of it, that sounds like an advantage. But when a party owns a database, it is subject to election law. As Chris Stern for Bloomberg reported, “VoterVault is barred by campaign finance laws from working directly with Republican-leaning groups such as the National Rifle Association.” The advantages of an independent, for-profit model were obvious.
* * *
While Catalyst was undoubtedly useful for Obama in gaining a victory in 2008, it still did not make full use of the internet. The database worked by collecting information available publicly, and through commercial means, on potential voters. It was used by activists to target those voters. But by itself the Catalyst system lacked any sort of user interaction, and it is user interaction with technology that changed things dramatically during the 2008 election.
Clay Shirky, the New York University professor on social and economic effects of internet technologies, identifies that the first four revolutions in the media – the printing press, two-way communications (telegraph and telephone), recorded media and then radio and television – operated in one of two ways. “The media that is good at creating conversations is no good at creating groups,” he said in 2009. “And the media that’s good at creating groups is no good at creating conversations.” Conversations were limited during the first four revolutions of the media between two people. Delivering large-scale broadcasts eliminates the reply in the conversation.
Catalyst helped extend the natural reach of traditional campaigning, yet Obama’s victory in 2008 was down to yet another database. This database was not constructed by media consultants, nor by those with greater political interests and ideologies. It was not created in a top-down form at all, and its success came thanks to Shirky’s fifth revolution: social media. Social media is the first kind of media to combine conversation and broadcast, while the internet generally combines all previous media forms together.
* * *
“Propelled by Internet, Barack Obama Wins Presidency,” reads Sarah Stirland’s Wired feature, published the day after the 2008 election. It is hard to deny the transformative effect that the internet had on Obama’s campaign. Obama quickly gained a lot of online support: his official social network – myBarackObama.com – was used by over 1.5m supporters to host over 150,000 events and create over 35,000 social groups that linked people by interests or location.
Obama received $600m in donations from grassroots supporters. A vast quantity was from the web. The Obama campaign asked for donations of $5, $10 or $20: amounts small enough to raise money from an entirely new generation of voters and activists.
The grassroots activists started their own projects, such as fight-the-smears campaigns, which they used to dispel the Republicans’ attacks. Software developers donated iPhone and iPod Touch apps, which were used to get the vote out to friends, family and colleagues. The grassroots led the new media campaign.
The media was cheaper as well. YouTube allowed for free advertising – a reported 14.5m hours of watched material – that otherwise would have cost $47m in traditional TV markets. This digital video advertising was especially advantageous as it meant viewers were more likely to react positively to it, having followed a link to it themselves via social recommendation. Obama combed the Catalyst database and called on his social network of users to target thousands of swing seats in the weeks leading up the election.
But the Republicans played a frighteningly slow game of cat-and-mouse.
In July 2008, the traffic to Obama’s website outstripped McCain’s four-to-one. The traffic gap had shrunk to two-to-one in the run up to the election, but by this time it was too little, too late. By 2008, 55 per cent of the entire adult population used the internet for information about politics, or used it as part of the political process. The same survey found that one in five internet users posted on forums, blogs or social networks about politics, 45 per cent watched campaign-related videos, and one-third forwarded political content to others. Participation and interactive involvement had permanently changed the way that politics could be conducted online.
* * *
Fast-forward a few years, and 2011 has seen social media reach new levels of notoriety and influence. Social media united the world behind the fight for democracy in Egypt. It was through social media that rioters organised themselves in Britain during civil unrest last summer, and it was social media that kept those at home informed about the extent of the chaos.
Many in government called for a ban on social media on such occasions – a strategy that is rarely effective. The success of social media traces, as Clay Shirky says, to its ability to allow conversations and broadcast simultaneously. This is what delivers freedom to those who use it: not top-down organisation, but integration.
* * *
The Republican Party and Republican supporters are putting every effort into ensuring that Obama is a one-term president. The Koch brothers expect to raise over $200m, while Rove-Gillespie – the other most active group in the GOP – expects to raise over $240m. Funding should clearly not be an issue. And the Rove-Gillespie camp has given its own private database to the Republican National Committee. Kenneth Vogel of Politico argues that this gives the Rove-Gillespie database an advantage over Themis, but the party shouldn’t be complacent, since, if the RNC owns a database, it is restricted in its usage by election law.
The Republican Party now needs to capitalise on social media in the same way that the Democrats did in 2008. McCain’s early use of political advertising online suited a past decade but such tactics are now hopelessly anachronistic.
The internet can no longer be used for top-down political campaigning. The Obama campaign’s great success was in learning very quickly that the best it could do was provide a platform for a social media election. So, although the Koch brothers’ Themis database could be one of the most solid backbones the Republican Party has had access to, the GOP will need to do more if it wishes to garner a similar response to the Democrats in 2008.
Then, the Democrats realised that social media was the medium that would, as Tolbert and McNeal predicted, bond people together. Political campaigning online is about providing people with the freedom to voice their opinion and connect with like-minded individuals. A digital database can be large, well-funded and exceptionally well cross-referenced, but alone it will not provide the “justice” that the Koch brothers want – even if it is called Themis.