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The Citizen

Pres. elections in a digital world

As we HKS students crack our books and begin to think about midterms and papers, our mentors and professors are living double or triple lives. Even as they educate us for a brighter tomorrow, they wheel and deal behind the scenes of the biggest political campaigns in America and the world.

Just the other day, the Elizabeth Warren campaign e-mailed me. “Zach,” they asked, “can you let us know if you received a mailing from our opponents?“

Innocuous enough, right? I might answer, I might not. But if I were an undecided voter, struggling between the incumbent and the consumer champion, that e-mail might very well have been the moment when I chose Warren over Brown.

Really? I understand your skepticism; a quick e-mail, big deal. But the old “Foot-in-the-Door” technique is a time-tested, Ben Franklin-approved method of bringing someone over to your side (or hitting them up for cash). Professor Todd Rogers teaches HKS students all about this technique, and dozens of others, in his course on Behavior of Decision Making (MLD-304).

But Professor Rogers does not sit idly by in the classroom. He has put theory into practice as the Executive Director of the Analyst Institute, which advises political campaigns on get-out-the-vote strategies, and as a researcher at the think tank Ideas42.  If we back away from the keyboard in the coming weeks and turn on the Forum big screens, you can challenge yourself to avoid a common presidential debate pitfall that Rogers has studied. As Rogers explains in a recent Los Angeles Times article: Audiences often fail to notice when a politician avoids a debate question. Will you?

Professor Rogers is not the only HKS professor hard at work to expand the digital reach and sway of political hopefuls. Nicco Mele teaches Digital Media, Power, and Politics (DPI-659) and has written the soon-to-drop The End of Big: The Internet Makes David the New Goliath. Even more than this, he runs a campaign consulting firm with global reach that has grown from Professor Mele’s experience as the web wizard behind Howard Dean.

Many of you may have noticed a surge in the number of campaign ads showing up in your browser. In this election season, Professor Mele is carefully observing these types of trends, as well as the influence of Twitter and social media on the outcomes of the campaign. But in his opinion, the internet in political campaigns is most powerful when it comes to raising funds, allowing internet-savvy underdog candidates to level the traditional cash advantage of the incumbent.

I asked Professor Mele which campaign is winning the internet war, and his judgment is that the contest is not even close.  President Barack Obama has Governor Mitt Romney beat in online web presence, and “by an order of magnitude”.  As far as his thoughts on the role of Twitter, he reports that research shows Twitter certainly helps to drive the news cycle – but what that impact will be on the presidential election is difficult to say.

So, as the Presidential Campaign continues, keep an eye out for the impact our own professors are making…if you can spot it.