Election Tech: 7 New Technologies that Shaped an Election

11 Oct 2008 2008-11-10

Election Tech: 7 New Technologies that Shaped an Election

Posted by Mike Payne

One of the most historic elections in the history of the United States of America ended nearly a week ago.  While the result will go down as a defining moment in world history, this election also saw the introduction of many ground-breaking new technologies.  From internet fundraising to multi-touch election maps, here’s a list of 7 technologies that helped shape the most historic election of the internet generation.

The Election ATM: Internet Fundraising

When forming his campaign, then Senator Barack Obama took inspiration from the model of one-time presidential candidate Howard Dean.  Dean foresaw the internet as the fundraising tool of the future, but it was Obama who championed this concept in his own campaign.  Throughout his campaign, Barack Obama raised a record breaking $600 million in contributions from individual donors, the majority of which came from internet-based campaign contributions.  By the end of his campaign, Obama received contributions from over 3,000,000 donors.

Internet fundraising was used in prior elections, as was internet advertising.  But this was the first campaign in history to have taken the majority of its donations online.  In January 2008, 88% of Obama’s donations came from individuals donating online– to the tune of $28 million.  This more than doubled then-rival Hillary Clinton’s total fundraising for the month of only $13.5 million.  Barack Obama’s use of the internet as a fundraising tool gave his campaign a monumental cash advantage over both Hillary Clinton and John McCain, an advantage he rode directly to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

The Debate Snap Poll: Pundits Begagged!

This was the first presidential election in modern history where snap polls were used to score debates.  In prior elections, each debate was followed by obsessive spin from the mouths of the pundits.  To propel their favored candidate, the pundits would spin the outcome of a debate in their favor.  Thanks to snap polling, it is now the people who decide who wins the debate, not the pundits.

During and immediately following each debate, news organizations poll a group of undecided voters about the outcome of the debate.  Once this data is compiled, it is delivered to news teams for reporting.  Should a pundit claim that their candidate was the clear winner in the debate, the snap poll data may or may not overturn this spin.  The pundits are held accountable, and it is the voice of the people that write the news headlines the following day.

The Text Message of History: Biden for VP

It was the text message heard around the world.  On August 23rd at around 3:00a.m., Senator Joe Biden was announced as Barack Obama’s running mate for the 2008 presidential election.  Not surprisingly, this was the first time that a Vice Presidential candidate was announced via SMS.  While this was news to many of its recipients, the campaign had failed to keep the news from leaking before the text went out.  However, this text message became the first of many news updates that were transmitted via SMS by the Obama campaign.  Later in the season, SMS was even used to organize and rally volunteers to help drive support for the Obama campaign.  Which leads us to…

The Internet as Campaign Manager: Organizing Volunteers

Not only was the internet a fundraising phenomenon for the Obama campaign, it also helped to organize an army of volunteers across the 50 states.  Through the Obama website, email newsletters and text messages, supporters were asked to volunteer for the Obama campaign in their own time.  Supporters were invited to make calls for the Obama campaign, to deliver flyers and talk to their neighbors about Obama’s message, to host Obama parties and events and to help get voters to the polls on November 4th.

Obama’s experience as a community organizer and his campaign’s understanding of the internet allowed Obama to turn out volunteers in unprecedented numbers.  Members of the Obama website had created over 30,000 events across the US to promote Obama’s candidacy for President.  In the weeks leading up to the election, Obama volunteers were everywhere: on the phones, door-to-door in neighborhoods and driving voter registrations in towns and cities across the country.  This turnout was only possible with the help of the internet as a communication and organization tool.

Display of the Future: The John King Multi-Touch

For the tech-minded, John King’s multi-touch election map on CNN was the reason for watching that network’s coverage.  This mammoth, multi-touch screen was paired with some visually stunning software developed by CNN.  From the Iowa Caucus to the general election, King’s map provided amazing visual displays of election data right down to the precinct level.  King could instantly pull up data from a tiny precinct in Indiana in real time, then compare it to the 2004 election, then pull up voter trends by demographics.

Like the Apple iPhone or the Microsoft Surface, CNN’s “Magic Wall” is controlled by multi-touch.  John King could use one or both hands to move around on the map, to control different display elements and to draw and hightlight sections within.  While it wasn’t CNN’s only technological advancement in this election cycle, it was the only one that roundly impressed tech lovers across the US.

Tech Hype: CNN’s Holographic Interviews

While CNN’s Magic Wall was seen as a hit in the tech community, the network should have quit while they were ahead.  On election night, November 4th, CNN revealed their new technology, interviews via hologram.  By using an array of cameras, a subject would be recorded live and then merged with the studio feed to show viewers a holographic representation of that subject.  The technology appeared gimmicky to many viewers, and appeared less visually appealing than showing the subjects in their own location.

The quality of the holograms were poor– think Princess Leia to Obi Wan Kenobi.  While the technology will likely be improved upon to the point that they appear to be more compelling, it is now a bit too underdeveloped.  One interesting use of the hologram was when it was controlled by John King’s Magic Wall– the display on the magic wall would be shown in 3D, floating between two CNN anchors.  While there might be opportunities to build on, this was little more than an election night gimmick to keep viewers on CNN, not elsewhere.

The Metapoll: Combined Polling and Electoral Projections

The first known example of U.S. presidential opinion polling dates back to 1824, when Andrew Jackson led John Quincy Adams 2-to-1 in a straw poll conducted by The Harrisburg Pennsylvanian.  While that makes presidential election polling 184 years old, the way we use this polling data evolved in an extaordinary way in the presidential election of 2008.  In March of 2008, a baseball statistician named Nate Silver launched FiveThirtyEight.com, a meta-polling and electoral projection publication based on polling data from firms across the United States.  FiveThirtyEight not only accurately projected the outcome of the presidential election of 2008, it accurately determined the outcome of the primary battles earlier this year, with few exceptions.

Silver’s method involved gathering polling data at the state and national levels, weighing the poll provider based on accuracy, partisan lean and participant samples, then merging this data in one mammoth database.  Each day, as new polls were published, Silver would update his database to reflect the most recent data.  FiveThirtyEight would then publish this data with Silver’s analysis, including a map of projected electoral results for the November 4th general election.  On January 4th, Silver’s method gave John McCain a 1.1% chance of taking the election, but suggested Barack Obama would win with 349 electoral votes.

Nate Silver’s concept may not be new, but his execution and efficiency is.  Others like Pollster.com and RealClearPolitics.com have provided meta-polling projections, but both of them were taken to school by Silver’s methodology.  In future elections, this “Oracle of Elections” will likely be called on by the media elite to weigh in his very data-informed opinions.  He’s already risen to the top, having been featured in an interview with none other than Stephen Colbert himself…

Thanks for reading, GearCravers, Diggers, Stumblers and otherwise.  Please share this with those you think might be interested, and let us know if you think we missed anything.  This has been an historic election season on many, many levels– including the involvement of new technologies…

(images courtesy: ravedelay, adria.richards, perceval_tl via flickr)

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