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Tech 2020: How Technology Has Revolutionized Campaigning

Zorina Akhund

Zorina Akhund

As we continue following the campaign trail leading up to November’s presidential election, we’ve touched upon several tech-related issues and the role they’ve played, or not played, in this year’s multiple campaigns. While the candidates themselves may not have talked enough about tech as part of their policy platforms, technology itself is a prominent part of how the campaigns themselves function, affecting everything from their behind-the-scenes operations to how they distribute information to voters.

Major shifts in campaign strategy over the last 12 years have been owed to the adoption of technology around capturing and leveraging voter data – from textbanking to digital ads to internal campaign tools. Having worked on the 2016 campaign trail myself, I’ve witnessed firsthand how technology is an essential component to running any successful campaign operation – though obviously, tech alone can’t win elections either.

As we dive deep into a recent history of presidential campaigns, we see how technology has influenced politics through targeted campaigns and leveraging social networks, as well as how it has inevitably led to the rise of new security issues.

Targeted Campaigns

Back in 2008, the Obama campaign kicked off the technology revolution for presidential campaigning by finding their audience with targeted outreach. In a strenuous effort to collect granular data around demographics and voting patterns all over the country, the Democratic National Committee was instrumental in using technology to better identify, engage with and rally voters – voters who may have otherwise gone under the radar, but the campaign was able to pinpoint through a combination of targeted social media, digital advertising and outreach efforts tailored to unique voter data. All of which proved instrumental in getting voters to turn out in the primaries and general election, resulting in the biggest ever turnout for a presidential election.

In 2012, President Obama’s “Narwhal” data operation and Mitt Romney’s similar “Orca” system continued using big data to take analytics to an entirely new level of campaigning. Data collection tech enabled presidential campaigns to consider variables other than age and gender when tracking voting patterns. With this breakthrough came the integration of e-mail, mobile and web platforms, which was used to collect data and compare volunteer activity across different demographic pools, allowing candidates to target unregistered voters and predict general voter behavior.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that President Obama himself was an inspirational influence with more tech-savvy Millennial voters. I should know; it was the first year I was eligible to vote and having majored in politics, I was deeply invested in tracking the ins and outs of the election. Obama’s campaign took the application of data science to unprecedented heights, and before I knew it I myself had become emotionally invested in the campaign, successfully pulled in by the campaign’s use of targeted social media messages. In fact it was so effective, it led me to my first field organizing job for the 2012 campaign.

In 2008 and 2012, technology was at the forefront of political campaign change and was actively pioneering the way grassroots movements would adapt, integrating new digital methods of reaching voters alongside tried-and-true tactics like door-to-door canvassing and other basic forms of field organizing. Today, web tracking technology and digitalized data collection have become an essential part of the 2020 presidential campaigns, which continue to build on targeted digital platforms to reach younger and first-time voters.

The Social Network

For decades television was the dominant medium for political advertising and debates. Today, the internet has eclipsed television as the center of power in American political campaigning. Digital media is one of the most powerful tools in a campaign’s toolbox now. Widespread access to immediate information means that political candidates must factor social media into their media and GOTV campaign strategies and objectives if they want to be effective in reaching the masses.

The amount of research that goes into trending hashtags is equivalent to the brainpower behind a campaign slogan. By following candidates on their Snapchat handle, supporters can now virtually attend all rallies without leaving their house and media can get a direct quote from a candidate. Digital media has enabled candidates to become overnight viral sensations and perhaps one of the most obvious examples of a successful political digital marketing in recent history is President Trump’s 2016 campaign. Demonstrating both the power of democracy and disintermediation, Trump used social media to rally supporters and inflame opponents alike. While rogue tweets can be a traditional PR pro’s nightmare, for campaigns a social presence that lacks transparency and personality in the 21st century can be a deal breaker for voters.

On this campaign trail, we’ve seen former candidate Andrew Yang and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders active on a wide range of social platforms. Both not only embraced Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, but also experimented with Amazon’s video streaming site Twitch and the Chinese video-sharing app TikTok, both of which were new additions to presidential campaigning. Social media is more omnipresent in the 2020 election cycle than ever before, in part because of the variety of platforms available for activating voters.


This last factor comes as no shock for those who followed the 2016 election closely… or, in my case, actually worked on the campaign. I remember all too well how the importance of digital security weighed heavily on campaign staffers, and of course technology and cybersecurity was at the forefront of the long acrimonious election season. With email servers, Russian hackers, Twitter trolls and Wikileaks all playing a prominent role in that year’s campaign cycle, tech security shot up from an industry niche issue into a nationwide conversation.

Three and a half years have passed since John Podesta, the chairman of Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign, fell for a phishing email, kicking off a series of breached and leaked emails with their own implications for that election. In light of that, the 2020 campaigns made progress in fortifying their own digital operations, but that’s not to say they don’t still remain vulnerable to similar attacks. While email remains the primary cyberattack surface for campaigns, one of the most significant shifts since the 2016 election is that cybersecurity has become a more robust part of campaign culture. Nobody wants to be the next John Podesta, after all.

The New Normal for Campaigns

Technology and politics have always been connected, even prior to the 2008 election where we really started to see data capture, analytics, digital and social ads, and social media outreach take off as essential campaign tools. In recent campaign cycles, politics and tech have only become more inseparable. It’s birthed an entirely new category of reporters and industry specialists who cover tech policy and tech conversations on the 2020 campaign trail, and has added a whole new wrinkle to running campaigns and winning elections that will only continue to be top-of-mind for candidates and voters alike.