Some political observers see a perfect storm brewing in campaign finance and communication. The much-discussed Citizens United decision, among other Supreme Court cases, that lifted federal regulations prohibiting corporations from spending unlimited amounts of money in candidate campaigns, came right as political advertising started to move away from traditional media channels to the Internet, where regulation is nearly impossible. And there has been an explosion in campaign communication on the Internet—political operatives keen to find new ways to reach potential voters and contributors. This year, the uniquely American big money campaigns are colliding with technology, spurring more innovation (this campaign season alone, both parties have raised a combined total of more than $1.2 billion). Yet little research about this quickly changing media landscape has been done.

“We think of the campaign finance problem as specific to TV, but that’s really a time-bound and technology-specific phenomenon. As we move to the Internet, the audience isn’t captive—it’s mobile and always connected,” says Nathaniel Persily, JD ’98, James B. McClatchy Professor of Law, who teaches Campaign Finance Reform, a policy practicum that has stretched across three quarters and is planned to continue through the 2016 presidential campaign.

Persily’s students have been taking a fresh look at campaign finance issues—as well as the wider implications for media and campaign communication. Students in the practicum have researched various topics including the “big brother” data mining that is becoming increasingly important to campaigns.

Mining Personal Data for Campaigns

“Micro-targeting involves collecting the huge amounts of data that are out there about each of us, from political party
registration, to our residence, date of birth, all of that basic information, but also consumer data like our magazine subscriptions, the kind of car we drive, where we go out to eat dinner,” says Madeleine McKenna, JD ’16, who came to the practicum with prior experience as a field director on a statewide gubernatorial campaign where she saw “how a lot of these targeting approaches were working from the ground level.”

She explains that little pieces of information, gathered from various sources, but now more readily available on the Internet, come together to paint a detailed and valuable picture of voters, and campaigns are using that data to target potential voters with individualized messages. “Today, micro-targeting can be done with social media platforms in a very specific way. Combining it with social media is allowing political campaigns to target individuals on a much more personalized basis than has ever been done before.”

McKenna found that, for example, in primary and caucus states, campaigns have been partnering with Facebook to use a new tool that allows them to upload lists of people who they think will be likely to turn out to vote in each primary. Campaigns are then able to send those exact individuals advertisements over Facebook. “So it’s linking the mass amount of information that political campaigns have about their likely supporters with individuals and, specifically, their Facebook profiles. And it’s making that personal contact at a national level, which is something that we haven’t seen in past elections,” she says.

And while micro-targeting can be used as a fundraising and persuasion tool—and most Facebook users are accustomed to seeing fundraising ads on their feeds—she has found it has been fairly limited to a mobilization tool. “But campaigns, of course, are also looking at ways to figure out how we can use big data to identify persuadable voters too,” she says.

The rise of social media tools in campaign communication was also put under the microscope in the practicum.

“Social media platforms are today what television was in the late 1960s and radio was in the late 1920s, early 1930s—they are what politicians are using to reach more people in a cheaper way and in a more effective way also,” says Pablo Hernandez, JD ’17, who brought relevant experience to the practicum having worked with social media for the governor of Puerto Rico Alejandro Garcia Padilla’s 2012 campaign and subsequent administration. “So it’s very important to study it because it is crucial to understanding how politics is evolving and how politicians are engaging with the public and vice versa.”

Facebook started to be used as a campaign tool in the 2008 election. As the tool develops, and its use evolves, so does its application to elections. Not surprisingly, what has been popular with most users—i.e., photos of cute dogs and family pictures—is also popular for politicians.

But key to campaign financing is the finding that fundraising through social media is cheap and has a big return. “For example, President Obama claims to have raised $4.60 for every dollar he spent on Facebook advertising,” says Hernandez.

Campaign Finance Regulation Challenges in New media

Hernandez found the lack of policing of political advertising on social media platforms of particular concern.

“We now have corporations spending unlimited amounts of money on politics—particularly on advertisements using social media platforms—with little accountability,” he explains, noting that monitoring is daunting given the multitude of platforms and the speed of the messaging.

One key conclusion from the students’ research, says Persily, is that the new regulators of campaign finance will not be government entities, but rather the platforms themselves. The challenge, he explains, is the ubiquitous nature of the new media.
“It’s very difficult to even think about how you would craft a regulatory regime that the government could enforce that would go after political advertising online,” he says. “It’s not one thing: It’s text messages, it’s embedded advertisements in video games, it’s organizing someone’s newsfeed on Facebook, it’s tweets and YouTube videos.”

Another area of research for practicum students is “real-time” research into how the campaign finance system is playing out in the 2016 election.

“We’ve seen some tectonic changes in the campaign finance system this time, where some of the candidates with large financial backing ended up losing very early. Others, like Bernie Sanders, were able to get tens of millions of dollars in small contributions. And some—specifically Donald Trump—didn’t have to spend a whole lot of money but received an enormous amount of free media attention that was able to be leveraged into a victory on the Republican side,” says Persily.

Persily expects that campaign finance and its regulation will continue to be a top concern for the public and therefore at the forefront in the minds of policymakers in the coming years. He hopes that the research produced by students in this practicum, which he plans to combine into a book, will help to inform their discussions.

“Our campaign finance laws and the political science of campaign finance haven’t really taken account of the changing media landscape and of the new strategies that politicians and groups are adopting,” says Persily. “It’s important that policymakers have the best information out there, if they’re going to be crafting policies to respond to changing  trends.”