Stephen Mills

Stephen Mills
Thursday, 21 August 2014

After the database revolution: Micro-Targeting in the 2013 campaign

Labor’s national secretary and campaign director George Wright was able to organise a massive ground-war campaign in marginal seats, using the emerging tactic of “micro-targeting.” Micro-targeting is the contemporary descendant of the database revolution of the 1980s; where parties once collected demographic and other data about voters in marginal seats, new technology can and does identify spe­cific individuals. And instead of sending these voters an occasional piece of direct mail by post, micro-targeting reaches them repeatedly and through multiple channels: email, phone calls, SMS, social media, as well as doorknocking and other forms of face-to-face con­tact. This kind of campaigning allows parties not just to talk to voters but to engage them in conversations. Micro-targeting, however, requires “mega” data – large databases of voter information, regularly updated and readily accessible. It also requires teams of trained volunteers, deployed in call centres and on the streets – and these volun­teers are themselves recruited and mobilised through social media. Unlike earlier campaign innovations imported from the world of commercial marketing – especially television advertising and market research – micro-targeting has its roots deep in politics and cam­paigning, relying as it does on the spirit of voluntarism, the electoral logic of marginal seats, and the importance of community organis­ing. Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns in the US, in 2008 and 2012, made extensive use of micro-targeting. Both of these cam­paigns were closely observed by the Australian parties and motivated them to adapt this new campaign tool to the Australian electoral environment. George Wright was ideally placed to do so: the ACTU’s “Your Rights at Work” campaign in 2007, in which he had been intimately involved, had provided an early demonstration of its capacity.

Like national campaign directors before him, Wright’s ambi­tion was to create a national structure in which the state branches were well-integrated components. First, he spent heavily on a sub­stantial upgrade of Labor’s database. Next, he assembled a “national organising team” to organise ground-war campaigns in the key marginals. From mid-2012 he negotiated with unions to provide full-time organisers in each of thirty – later, forty – marginal seats that Labor had to hold or, in a handful of cases, win from the Coalition. From the end of 2012, twelve months before the election was due, these organisers were recruiting and managing teams of volunteers to campaign by phone or in person. Wright brought the forty organisers to Canberra for three training sessions during 2013, which built cohesion and shared skills.

It’s impossible to recruit a small army of new volunteers without letting lots of people know about it. So during the campaign Wright found himself star­ing into a camera lens, with the bustle of a call centre behind him, issuing regular YouTube updates about the progress of Labor’s micro-targeting efforts. This role of spruiker-in-chief is a new twist in the evolution of the national campaign director, who had previ­ously remained behind the scenes. In August 2013, Wright announced “a new facility on our website” to engage volunteers for the final weeks of the campaign. In a video posted to the party web­site, he urged: “Now is the time to stand up. I want you to stand up, I want you to step up, and I want you to sign up.” Wright insisted he needed “five takes” to make each such video, but that the effort was worthwhile because, as he put it,

“experience in the US is that people want insider information, and want to be involved. If they are involved they will contribute more, both potentially as volunteers or [with] donations. It’s not my idea – I don’t have a grand philosophical bent to it – I’m act­ing under the advice of that team and I take their advice because they’ve delivered.”

By the end of the campaign, Wright reported to Labor’s national executive, the field campaign had made 1.2 million phone calls (compared to just 100,000 in the 2010 campaign) and achieved 250,000 “registered volunteer doorknocks.” The digital campaign, led by Skye Laris, had collected a quarter of a million email addresses and sent 3.5 million emails. On social media, the campaign had attracted 160,000 Facebook likes and 50,000 Twitter followers. Five thousand volunteer “tele-campaigners” had registered, and some 10,000 volunteers registered online – far more than the national campaign could deploy in call centres; they were redirected to help local candidates. Online fundraising had raised more than $800,000, up from just $75,000 in the previous campaign. Small online donors, Wright told the National Press Club, together con­tributed to the national campaign more than twice the funds of any single union or corporate donor. Wright claimed that these efforts had helped Labor to retain key marginal seats such as Parramatta, where MP Julie Owens had knocked on more than 10,000 doors; Greenway, where MP Michelle Rowland called 50,000 households; and McEwen, where MP Rob Mitchell made 7000 phone calls in the last five days and held his seat by 380 votes.

The Liberals watched Labor’s micro-targeting efforts closely. Brian Loughnane directed money into marginal seats investing, he said, in “experienced on the ground campaigners, improved systems and technology, including social media and micro-targeting.” He claimed to have bettered Labor’s social media campaign, with more Facebook likes and more viewers of the Liberals’ dedicated You­Tube channel. The Liberals’ US-based social media campaign con­sultants, Republican Party-affiliated IMGE, later won the “best overall internet campaign” award of the American Association for Political Consultants for its 2013 campaign in Australia. But the Liberals do not appear to have matched the intensity of Labor’s on-the-ground efforts. Loughnane conceded that they made fewer tar­geted phone calls than Labor. Part of the reason appears to be scepticism, or at least caution, about the cost benefit of the new approach. In an era of increasing social mobility, with more people moving house more frequently, databases can age rapidly; regular investment is required to update and extend them, and to improve usability. At the same time, the combined barrage of volunteer calls and robocalls from both parties must at some point yield diminish­ing returns. “People are getting sick of it,” Wright conceded. More generally, Loughnane points out that predictions about the revolu­tionary impact of the new technologies have yet to be fulfilled:

“After Obama in ’08 there was huge pressure to devote very signif­icant resources into social media. We devoted significant resources in 2010. But there were a lot of people who basically said, “TV is dead.” It wasn’t dead, and it’s not dead now, in terms of what persuades voters … Television is still, I think for both parties, the biggest chunk [of campaign spending].”

The scepticism is perhaps emblematic of Loughnane’s steady-as-she-goes approach. Indeed, in 2013, the Liberals did not need dramatic new technology or mass mobilisation of volunteers; it had succeeded at the political level in undermining an already exhausted and divided government. The Liberals’ aspiration remained as it has been in every campaign since 1996: to win over the Howard battlers and to establish a broad cross-section of support, pushing Labor out of the contested territory and back into its shrinking heartland. Tony Abbott, while never popular, was portrayed as serious and stable and, in response to Gillard’s accusations of misogynism, as warmly surrounded by his wife and daughters. The launch, at the start of 2013, of his “Real Solutions” plan was supported by extensive TV and internet advertising throughout the first half of the year – a solid counterpoint to Labor’s faltering messages and leadership ten­sions. From Wright’s point of view, Loughnane was successfully “able to manage his leader … to the needs of his party’s strategy”:

“The crucial thing that Brian and his team had in spades and ruthlessly drove home their advantage with, was the biggest thing Labor’s team lacked: discipline. I’m not sure if history will remember Brian’s campaign as brilliant, but it should be remem­bered as brilliantly disciplined.”

As a considered assessment, “brilliantly disciplined” is less extrav­agant than Abbott’s own election-night wrap-up of the Liberal campaign as “our most professional campaign ever.” But Wright’s judgement is more precise and, coming from a rival, perhaps more interest­ing. By “disciplined,” Wright meant that Abbott had been subject to the campaign discipline of his head office. The capacity of a national campaign director to bring an entire party, including the parliamentary leader, under the discipline of head office is critical to the success of a campaign and the hallmark of professionalism. In praising Loughnane’s achievement, Wright was also acknowl­edging his own failure; it was precisely this discipline that had been lacking from Labor’s effort in 2013.

Wright has made clear he will stay on in head office for one more campaign “at least.” He understood the temptation to quit:

“It can be a pretty shit job. An election campaign is just so exhausting. It’s unbelievable. I’d never experienced anything like it. It was more exhausting than working for Rudd.”

But he also believed the party needed stability in head office; it had paid a high price for instability. Head office positions should not be seen as a factional spoil to be shared around, or as a stepping stone on the way to Parliament, but as important in their own right. Like generations of party officials before him, he expressed confidence that head office can make a distinctive and professional contribution to the party:

“I think it’s the way you understand your role and your job as well. Is it my job to set policy for the Labor Party? Is it my job to be a passionate advocate for blah? No. My job is to run the best election campaigns that we run, to give us the best chance of winning elections – and to run the organisation to those same objectives, and to support the parliamentary party to those same objectives.”

images-2This article is an edited excerpt of “The Professionals: Strategy, Money and the Rise of the Political Campaigner in Australia” by Stephen Mills   (Black Inc Books, 2014)

Buy the book by Friday 29 August for only $24.99, discounted by Black Inc. especially for Chifley Research Centre supporters.

About Stephen Mills:

Stephen Mills is the author of "The Professionals: Strategy, Money and the Rise of the Political Campaigner in Australia” (2014), the pioneering study 'The New Machine Men' (1986). He also wrote 'The Hawke Years' (1993), dealing with the prime ministership of Bob Hawke, for whom he worked as speechwriter from 1986 to 1991. He is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Government at the University of Sydney, and was a Harkness Fellow (1983–85) and graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is a former journalist and editor with Fairfax.