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The De-monetization of Politics?

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Donald Trump's election as President of the United States in November 2016 may have changed the nature of the political game in several ways, not least by its demotion of the importance of Big Money. Big Money is receding from the scene, leaving a vacuum, and Big Data is poised to fill that space.

The people who worry about Big Money in politics - as well as the people who shrug and accept it - have agreed in recent decades that the key connection between such money on the one hand and electoral success on the other is advertising: especially broadcast advertising

Yet the Hillary Clinton campaign spent a good deal more than Trump's campaign did on advertising. In the first two months of general election political advertising (mid-June to mid-August), her campaign spent $61 million on broadcast ads, while allied independent groups spent another $43 million in her cause.

Trump's campaign didn't spend a dime on broadcast ads during that period, and its independent allies spent only $12.4 million, creating a 9-to-1 discrepancy. That discrepancy narrowed somewhat in the remainder of the campaign, but Clinton easily outspent Trump overall.

As a consequence, according to a Politifact tally, of the top 10 most-aired ads of the campaign, only three supported Trump. In a pre-election day round-up, Politifact said that Clinton "won the ad campaign with a variety of attack ads and a sprinkling of positive messaging."

Michael Barone, a resident fellow of the American Enterprise Institute, wrote soon after the election that although money is often said to be the "mother's milk" of politics, Trump had won with a low-lactose diet.

Why does money mean less than it once did? Because those high-cost network ads mean less than they did. Campaign strategies to and through the year 2016 were still being run by people who entered the trade in the 1970s, and who remembered (perhaps too fondly) the days when three television networks together reached nearly every voter, nearly every day, and when spots could be run on the most popular programs of all three, ensuring not only that everyone would see them, but that they would dominate political discussion. That was called "roadblocking" the airwaves. It was a high cost strategy (mother's milk, indeed) but it was effective.

In the new world, though, a cheaply made YouTube video can have an energizing impact on one campaign, and can prove devastating for another; and a tweet, costing nothing but wear and tear on the tweeter's finger muscles, can reach more voters than a traditional television ad barrage ever will.

What will matter in the near future, far more than the Big Money of a Koch brother or George Soros will be Big Data, the availability and mobilization of ever-more granular voter information, and the mobilization of likely supporters it allows.

Big Data is poised to fill the gap that the departure of Big Money would otherwise leave. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

Big Data is cheap because hiring a statistician to work on it costs no more than hiring one to work on small data. Since a campaign is going to hire statisticians anyway, if only to work on old-fashioned survey data, it costs nothing extra for them to hire statisticians familiar with the newly available population data.

Indeed, as a pioneer in IT Vincent Granville put the point, more than a year before Trump announced his campaign, "I would go so far as to say that big data is easier to process than small data, once you get familiar with the right techniques."

The political outcomes of the near future will turn on who gets more familiar with this more quickly and effectively.

But to think forward a bit further: what may happen is this. The politics of various advanced industrial countries goes through a brief period (a decade or so) in which the issue is who has the smartest Big Data experts, not the most expensive. But by the time that decade is out, the relevant level of Data-Bigness will have become commoditized, and something else will represent the leading edge of winning or losing elections. And how much money that something else will cost will in turn determine whether Big Money makes a comeback.

Comments

  1. According to Wikipedia, "Fingers do not contain muscles (other than arrector pili). The muscles that move the finger joints are in the palm and forearm." Also according to Wikipedia, "The arrector pili muscles are small muscles attached to hair follicles in mammals. Contraction of these muscles causes the hairs to stand on end, known colloquially as goose bumps." So a tweet doesn't even cost wear and tear on the tweeter's finger muscles.

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