Home' Technology Review : January February 2013 Contents 35
techNology + politics
MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
1979, I was an aeronautical-engineering
major at San Jose State University, sneak-
ing time in the laser lab to make holograms
or running over to the computer lab in the
middle of the night to try my hand at IBM
punch cards and Fortran. In between classes
and on weekends, I volunteered in local political campaigns
and thought of changing my major to political science. I was
23 years old and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with
my life. What would change people’s lives more, I thought:
technology or politics?
Technology seemed full of promise yet somehow soulless.
Heart and soul was what I found when I volunteered. So, late
in 1979, I got in my car, leaving my most prized possession—
a Tandy TRS-80 microcomputer—with a friend, and drove to
Iowa to become a $15-a -day field organizer for Ted Kennedy’s
campaign for president.
In Iowa, the Kennedy team was harnessing the most
advanced technology then available to a presidential campaign:
the telephone call combined with meticulous use of three-by-
five index cards. A paid phone bank would call registered Demo-
crats and independents and ask them whom they intended to
vote for in the upcoming Iowa caucuses. An index card would
be created with the voter’s name, address, and phone number—
and a code number for the person’s answer to that one question,
handwritten on the card. A “1” meant the voter was for Kennedy;
“2” that the voter was leaning to Kennedy; “3” that a voter was
undecided. Worst was “4”: it meant the voter was supporting
our opponent, the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter.
When newly minted Kennedy organizers like me arrived in
Iowa, we were told what county we would be organizing—and
were handed shoeboxes of index cards that had been coded.
From that point you did whatever you thought worked. If
some line of argument moved an undecided “3” in your candi-
date’s direction, you kept using that argument; but there wasn’t
much of a way to tell other organizers you had stumbled on a
persuasive message. You called any updated code numbers in
to your assigned regional headquarters every night. You never
learned what it did with them.
Until the Obama 2012 campaign, none of this got much bet-
ter as time wore on. The three-by-five card would give way to
computer-generated printouts over time, but the basic coding
system in politics stayed the same. Worse, at the time I joined
politics, campaigns were starting to invest less and less in field
organization and voter contact. Television ads were growing
in importance, and even as early as the 1980 presidential cam-
paign, resources were being taken away from meeting and talk-
ing with voters at their doors and redirected toward reaching
those same voters with 30-second spots in their living rooms.
As a consequence, politics started to lose its soul, which is the
active participation of ordinary voters in elections.
In 1982 I was Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley’s deputy
campaign manager when he sought the governorship of Cali-
fornia. I tried to talk the campaign into buying a PDP-series
computer from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to use in
targeting our direct-mail fund-raising appeals and running our
voter identification data and get-out-the-vote targets. No one
had installed a computer for a political campaign before, and
my colleagues didn’t want to risk money on an untested idea. I
took my life savings, bought the machine myself, and installed
it on my own. We used it to raise hundreds of thousands of dol-
lars from direct mail, and we built an enormous database of
California voters for targeting our field operations.
We had the data: we knew which voters were wholly ours
and which were less likely to turn out without our effort. And we
had budgeted $2 million for our get-out-the-vote organization.
A few weeks before Election Day, our polling showed that
we had slipped behind our Republican opponent, George
Deukmejian. Our pollster told us that unless the campaign
spent another $2 million on statewide television, we would
lose. Suddenly, all our targeting and voter identification was for
naught: the campaign took the $2 million we had set aside for
getting out the vote and bet it all on television ads.
On election night, I had the DEC PDP look at our data and
the data from the California Secretary of State’s Office as pre-
cincts reported. All three broadcast television networks declared
Bradley the winner on the basis of exit polls. But the computer
didn’t blink; within minutes of the polls closing, it belched out
a projection that Bradley would lose by 100,000 votes. Months
later, when the final results were in, it would turn out that we
lost by about 93,000 votes—roughly three votes per precinct.
Decisions like this were made in campaign after campaign,
within both parties, for the next 30 years. Television won every
time. Poll-driven television ads sucked the heart and soul out of
politics without much challenge. But during the very years that
politics stagnated, technology evolved to allow people to share
ideas and stories or sell and buy things from each other in ways
that really improved their lives. By late 2002, political profes-
sionals from both sides of the political spectrum believed that
it might be possible to take on the top-down, money-driven,
television-ad-centric approach to politics and instead use tech-
nology to build a bottom-up, people-centered politics.
The 2004 presidential bid of Howard Dean, the former
governor of Vermont, attracted former McCain 2000 staffers,
old Kennedy hands, activists from both parties, and ordinary
people from across the country who wanted to build a different
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