What a political campaign would do, if it could, is send someone to your house to sit down with you and talk to you for an hour, get to know you, meet your kids, and convince you to go out and vote on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of the appropriate November.
Barring that, it loves at least knowing where you live, because from there it can figure out how often you vote and who you live with and, after cross-referencing with some databases neatly compiled by massive consumer research organizations, knows what you buy and how you think. (Within a certain, probably-smaller-than-you-think margin of error.)
And barring that, it loves having your e-mail address. E-mail, too, is usually linked to a huge trove of data, and, at the end of the day, the campaign process -- with its focus on adding up enough votes to get to fifty-percent-plus-one -- uses data the way an iPhone uses a battery: hyperactively to the point of annoyance.
With 2016 sort-of-looming, we were curious the extent to which sort-of-candidates need to start figuring out what they're going to do with Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and all of the other various things that didn't exist when, say, Jeb Bush last ran for office. Pew Research regularly looks at who uses which social media tools. This shifts a bit, year over year, so it's hard to know what it looks like now. But if you're a campaign, the digital field looks something like this.
If you're Mike Huckabee, trying to figure out what to do in Iowa, where are you going to put your resources? Iowa is mostly white, and the most likely primary voter is going to be a retiree. The simple answer is: You're not going to do anything. But the simple answer is not that simple.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who's not going to say you need to be on Facebook and Twitter and spend a lot of resources there," said Nick Schaper, former director of digital media for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and now the president and CEO of Engage, a firm that consults on digital strategy. But if he had to pick one key to the digital toolset: "A former colleague used to say it all the time, and I'm always ripping him off, but e-mail is still the killer app."
Let's go back to the analogy above, in which campaigns wish they had the time and resources to camp out in your living room. Campaigns want three things from you: Your vote, your money, and your endorsement -- listed in decreasing order of importance and difficulty. To ensure you go vote, they have to have some way to get in touch with you, and your home address is the most useful. For money or an endorsement, they don't; you can give a donation at an event and re-tweet something you see in passing, for example. But having a way to get in touch with you lets them keep fundraising and keep pushing you to take some sort of action.
Which, if you've given one your e-mail, you've no doubt noticed. E-mail was the first broadly adopted digital social networking tool; 85 percent of American adults over the age of 18 use e-mail, and most of them -- probably including you -- have it available in their pockets right now. You've been using it long enough and at enough sites that consumer data companies have built a decent-sized profile around it. And you're not surprised to get spam in your e-mail in the way that you might be on other, less mature communications networks.
The advantages offered by e-mail are why Laura Olin -- now a principal at Precision Strategies, but who previously was the outbound director of social media for Obama's reelection -- puts an emphasis on it. "E-mail is still the largest driver of fundraising and a volunteer program," she said in a phone conversation with the Post. "Social is a drop in the bucket compared to that."
Since political campaigns like to try to wring out those small drops, we asked Schaper and Olin (and her partner Shannon Lee, who runs Precision's digital ads) what 2016ers should be doing in digital besides just gathering (or buying) e-mail addresses?
All parties agreed that you have to be on social media at its most basic. "It's in the same way you might look at a local business not having a Web site and making the assumption that they're not for real," Lee said. "Digital presence is important for conveying legitimacy."
Schaper recommended starting early in integrating the use of social media into the campaign and among staff, but with caution. "Making sure that some ground rules are set and clearly communicated from the outset is really critical," he said. He drew a clear distinction between the old tweets that got Ethan Czahor in trouble this week with new, questionable tweets from a member of a campaign -- a much riskier proposition for a candidate. Campaigns need to engage with voters, but there are a lot of landmines.
From an organizing standpoint, social media has its own value. "Social is obviously the best place to take advantage of network effects, like people getting their friends to do stuff for us," Olin pointed out. In other words, you're more likely to share a story from your best friend than from some candidate -- and social makes that easy.
There are some ways in which campaigns could break the mold a bit (Olin and Lee talked a bit about Snapchat, for example), and the value of getting media attention from innovative usage of digital technology was still important. "Being the first to be doing something is always a good way to set yourself apart," as Lee put it. But pressed to focus on where ground should be broken, all of them talked about mobile.
"No matter what the social network," Lee said, "they're all overwhelmingly used via mobile devices. That's a big step from 2012." She said people are "increasingly talking with their friends an checking things on social networks on their mobile phones," so making the campaign mobile-friendly is important.
And that includes dipping into people's wallets. Mobile is about immediacy, which makes improving the ability to donate key. Schaper articulated how it should go: "Making sure that people can donate with one click. Making sure they can encourage their friends to do the same. Making sure that they're storing credit cards when appropriate. Making it easy for folks to give when they want to give, because that moment's going to pass." Basically, reducing the time investment on behalf of the supporter.
When you contrast the speed of technological advancement with the relative infrequency of presidential campaigns, it becomes almost immediately obvious that there's a lot of wheel reinvention/refinement/retirement every election. For now, campaigns (or exploratory committees, or what-have-you) looking at digital media would be advised to keep Laura Olin's words in mind.
"Social," she said, "is a great way to get people hooked on e-mail."