- Special Projects
Kirk Caldwell’s victory in the 2012 Honolulu mayor’s race showed just how intimate modern, state-of-the-art campaigning can be. But it was intimacy with a twist.
In some ways this intimacy resembled the way people treated one another in 19th Century small-town America or in pre-statehood Hawaii. In other ways it did something else that was both more sophisticated and more controversial.
To understand how the new intimacy worked, let’s compare two historically important races in Hawaii, the 1970 Democratic primary contest between the incumbent, Gov. John Burns, and his lieutenant governor, Tom Gill — which was the most passionate political race in Hawaii’s history — and the 2012 Honolulu mayoral race between Ben Cayetano and Kirk Caldwell.
Both were cutting-edge campaigns that ended in come from behind victories for their candidates.
In “To Catch a Wave,” his definitive book on the 1970 race, Tom Coffman wrote that the Burns campaign had “an amazing degree of sophistication … a near-revolutionary refinement that departed radically from traditional Island politics.”
Coffman’s words also perfectly describe the 2012 Caldwell campaign.
The Burns campaign’s centerpiece, “To Catch A Wave,” was an unprecedented 30-minute film about John Burns that was shown repeatedly on prime time television and even more often at rallies and gatherings across the state.
The Caldwell campaign’s centerpiece was the strategy orchestrated and funded by Pacific Resource Partnership (PRP), the campaign’s most visible and richest player. The PRP-funded strategy combined voter targeting and grassroots campaigning in ways never previously seen in Hawaii.
The Burns campaign’s pollster was a self-taught young guy from Waipahu named Rick Egged who convinced a couple of hundred college students to work for free.
To do its data gathering and analysis, PRP hired an organization with a far more daunting name than Rick from Waipahu — Strategic Telemetry (ST). ST was the data-mining and voter-micro-targeting backbone of the famously state-of-the-art 2008 presidential campaign of Barack Obama.
Despite their seat-of-the-pants operation, the Burns polls turned out to be very reliable and useful, although they had limits. Their samples were large enough to meet acceptable polling standards but too small to do much more than analyze very broad categories.
Those polls could identify trends and offer data on broad categories of voters, like ethnicity and income, but said nothing about a particular voter herself. There was no way for anyone to do this in 1970 because the data and technology to do so did not exist anywhere
To put it in Strategic Telemetry’s modern language, there was no way to micro target and drill down.
ST specializes in doing exactly what it was impossible for the 1970 campaigns to do. Micro targeting and drilling down is ST’s specialty and it drove PRP’s campaign on behalf of Caldwell.
The initial ST poll of Hawaii had 6,000 respondents, a huge and very expensive operation by today’s conventional polling standards. According to PRP’s Executive Directive John White, the initial ST poll alone cost $100,000.
As it did in the Obama campaign, ST combined the results of the survey with the huge amount of data about individuals that is now available from both public and private sources, and then used this to build profiles of individual voters.
So the Caldwell campaign had a load of information about you as an individual — not just about your district or your census tract, or even your block — but about you, the Aiea woman living up the hill from Pearlridge in townhouse #41.
It was those profiles that were the first step in making the Caldwell campaign so intimate.
Both the Burns and Caldwell campaigns used an astonishing amount of grassroots politicking, but the difference in the ways each did this is the difference between the friends-and-neighbors political schmoozing of the past and the highly rationalized, supervised, and data-driven intimacy that characterizes micro targeting.
Grassroots organizing had been a key part of both Hawaii’s Democratic Party resurgence and the earlier Burns races. In 1970 the Burns people took this one step further by developing the “Aikane” (friends) program, which Coffman describes as “a multipurpose system” involving “new variations of electronic packaging.”
“Neighborhood workers” organized coffee hours where they would show “To Catch a Wave.”
So friends and neighbors gathering for coffee and watching a movie was an innovation? Quaint by today’s standards, right?
Not surprisingly, the PRP-funded grassroots campaign had a different kind of intimacy.
Big Data led to small targets.
PRP’s grassroots politics folks — the canvassers — were by no means volunteers, and most likely they were not from the neighborhoods they canvassed. Instead they were paid employees hired by PRP. According to PRP’s White, many of them were unemployed union members who got paid $20 an hour for what, during the race, was a full-time job.
These canvassers were trained, scripted, and closely supervised. Each was given a smart phone with a GPS, so that their supervisors could constantly communicate with them and monitor where they were and what they were doing.
Their job was to make contact with specific individuals based on the micro targeting and data mining model that ST had developed. Of course that meant that the PRP field worker had some pretty detailed information about a voter before he or she knocked on the door for the first visit, or for the visits that followed.
The paid neighborhood workers had two tasks, making a pitch and gathering additional information about a voter.
All of this allowed PRP to update its voter models and to monitor changes in individuals in real time.
Through the combination of big data and small face-to-face encounters, PRP made a crucial discovery that profoundly affected its campaign strategy. Their data showed that partisanship was key even though the mayoral election was formally non-partisan.
As a result, the campaign focused on bringing conflicted Democrats — those who normally voted Democratic but were initially opposed to rail — into the Caldwell fold.
To keep the election from being a referendum on rail, PRP targeted other issues. According to PRP’s own tracking polls, by election time the mayor’s race was not a referendum on rail at all. A little over a year and a half before the election 52 percent of voters opposed rail while 44 percent supported it. By general election time, opposition and support were virtually equal.
Most candidates are not going to jump on the micro-targeting bandwagon because that approach is prohibitively expensive for all but the deepest pockets.
But three things indicate that Hawaii might see more of this. First, it worked here in a major race. Second, as revolutionary as the Burns campaign was at the time, running for office that way is no longer feasible. Third, in regard to the senatorial Democratic primary race between Brian Schatz and Colleen Hanabusa, some members of Schatz’s inner circle have direct, hands-on experience with micro targeting because of their work on Obama’s presidential campaigns.
Are these new forms of intimacy a positive sign because they bring a personal touch back to politics, or are they creepy intrusions? If you’ve ever lived in a small town or a tight neighborhood, you know that the boundary between intimacy and intrusion is porous. There is a fine line between a caring neighbor and a nosy one.
But the PRP canvassers were not your neighbors, and they likely knew more about your tastes and preferences than even the most caring or nosy neighbor — and in fact even more than you know about yourself.
Yet really how threatening is this new intimacy when so many of us use social media to display our most intimate habits and, through the Internet, either passively of willingly offering so much information about ourselves to advertisers who then use it to micro target us?
These are important questions, but it is easy to get blindsided if you focus only on whether the new political intimacy is good or bad.
The 1970 campaign offers an important lesson about the limits of that focus.
According to Coffman, “highbrows” underestimated the impact of the Burns film “To Catch a Wave,” dismissing it as “stuff and nonsense.” As a result, those highbrows never really understood its appeal and thus never understood what was going on.
In the 2012 mayoral race, opinion makers and elites dismissed and underestimated PRP’s strategies in much the same way with similar results.
It isn’t a good way to analyze politics. And it isn’t a good way to come to grips with the relationship between changes in political strategy and changes in the broader world.