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Opinion: Don’t let digital campaign tools undermine democracy

(Tanya Moutzalias/The Flint Journal-MLive.com via AP)

Election campaigns this year are playing by new rules.

The presidential nominating conventions showed many voters are profoundly angry with politics as usual. Republican primary voters bypassed even Tea Party candidates to nominate Donald Trump. Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent, won both delegates and platform concessions from Hillary Clinton.

OPINION

At the same time, candidates spend too much time raising money. Often, they seek to please donors. The Citizens United and McCutcheon court cases have eliminated limits on spending by interest groups and allowed SuperPAC donors to flood campaigns with dark money.

Campaigns at even the most local level cost more than the most expensive campaigns 20 years ago. Yet, raising money other than in Internet appeals is much the same. The candidate has to meet and call donors for hours every single day.

A strong candidate with avid volunteers can still win with little money. As much as 5 percent of the vote is obtained just by getting on the ballot. The next few thousand votes require financing a headquarters, staff and publicity. Toward the end, advertising extras like radio or television ads and direct mail must be bought.

Today, there are additional costs for data analytics and technological expertise in managing social media, as well as purchasing Internet platforms and ads. The technology developed by national campaigns is now used in local campaigns to get volunteers, donations and votes

Planning an online campaign begins by building an integrated system with traditional and online campaign components. The major technological components include a campaign webpage, blogs, email lists and social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Social media and bloggers have influence. Donald Trump conducted his successful primary campaign mainly through use of often-hourly tweets. He sent more than 5,000 tweets in the first few months and had millions of views by the time of the early primaries.

Data analytics — information on voters gathered through social media data — is also having a major effect. Even local campaigns now use targeted online advertising.

Wise use of digital media gives an edge to a candidate, enabling anyone to interact with them. Smart campaigns use social media to reach voters inexpensively.

Digital technologies make it possible to select which voters to contact and how best to approach them. But the simple principle behind this is the same since the days of Abraham Lincoln. Find your favorable voters and get them to the polls.

Some of these new campaign trends boost voter information and participation. Some negative aspects threaten democracy. A candidate with no gravitas can use a catchy campaign to gain notoriety, displacing a worthy candidate. This accounts for Donald Trump’s success in winning the Republican nomination.

Digital media is evolving quickly, so it is critical that it be harnessed to improve informed, democratic participation. This is a major challenge, not only for the Clinton and Trump campaigns, but also for candidates running for town council, school board or state Legislature. No matter how crazy this election becomes under the new rules of the game, the end must be to improve, not undermine, our democracy.

Dick Simpson is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Betty O’Shaughnessy is a visiting lecturer in political science. Their new book is “Winning Elections in the 21st Century.”

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