OII SDP 2007 (IV): Divisive Technology: The Impact of Information Technology on Presidential Campaigning

Lead: Sunshine Hillygus

Political scholars have long recognized that information and communication technologies have fundamentally altered how candidates run campaigns–websites, online fundraising, and email communication have become integral to political campaigns. Often, however, these new technologies are viewed as a supplemental communication tool for conducting “politics as usual” — presumed to change the style of political campaigns, but not the basic structure of political interaction. I argue that new technologies have changed not only how candidates communicate with voters, it has also changed the substance of that communication. The explosion of information about individual voters and the diversification and fragmentation of the communications environment have influenced candidates’ ability and willingness to campaign on divisive wedge issues. And whereas the introduction of previous communication technologies, especially television, was used to expand and broaden the audience receiving a campaign message, technologies today are used to narrowly communicate these targeted messages to smaller and segmented audiences. These changes in candidate strategy and campaign tactics have potentially detrimental consequences for political inequality, electoral accountability, and democratic governance.


  • Impact on media: changes informat, nature of news, increased competition, 24h news cycle
  • Impact on public: people who use Internet for politics are already politically interested, increases engagement among those interested, increased info sources widened gap in political knowledge
  • Impact on politicians: changed how to communicate with the politically interested, changed how raise money, change how make it into political news
  • IT has changed who politicians talk to and what they are willing to say: i.e. while the number of unique issues mentioned in candidate speeches are more or less stable, on party platforms the number of issues dealt with is 2.5 times higher

The persuadable voter

[see readings] Who is persuadable electorate? How do candidates attempt to sway them?

Three myths about American Politics

  • American voters are polarized along partisan and ideological lines
  • The persuadable voters are uninformed, unengaged, and not policy-motivated
  • Candidates talk about divisive issues as part of a “base mobilization” strategy

IT and Campaign Strategy

  • Candidate strategy depends on information about voters, i.e. will not risk taking a stand on a political issue unless they know how the public will react
  • Hyperinformation environment enables candidates to microtarget different messages to diferent voters

While there are almost no moral issues on TV (political) advertising, figures of moral issues go up to 9% of total advertising when done by direct mail.

In mail messages, candidates (i.e. Bush vs. Kerry) don’t usually talk about the same issues. And even if they do, they don’t send them to the same target.

Steps in Microtargeting Process

  • Electronic registration files
  • Match data from consumer databases, membership lists, etc.
  • Survey in state sampled from database
  • Statistical model to predict who will vote and how; segment voters into target groups
  • Personalize campaign appeals to different target groups

Consequences of New Campaign Strategies

  • Fragmentation of campaign policy agenda
  • Polarization of candidates
  • Exacerbation of political inequality
  • Superficial politics
  • Potential crisis in governance

My reflections

  • Everybody’s seen Minority Report and the personalized ads that appear on the film, or knows about RFID based advertising. Is it a good or a bad thing that the information I really care of (provided my profile is accurately defined) reaches me directly, personally?
  • Put it in other words: why Amazon’s suggestions based on pattern recognition are seen as “good” and why such (same?) politics are “superficial politics”? Sunshine Hillygus states that the problem is that even if you’re interested in major issues (Economy, Social Security, etc.) the politicians are prone to touch specific buttons (i.e. Gay Marriage) to win your vote. On the other hand, she hardly criticizes (and I agree) that the problem appears when your unable to zero to the core discourse/ideology of the candidate, as he seems to be a mosaic of microideologies with no strong backbone.
  • Can we find a middle place between personalized superficial messages and metaphysical, theoretical, handbook politics? Maybe this middle place is having a coherent candidate with strong and structured believes, and then “granuralize” them so that specific messages — still, coherent with the “big” discourse — get to the potential voter according to his interests. According to Sunshine Hillygus is that this customized message normally hides a lack of backbone, of real discourse besides the populist one. Information Technologies should help on “granularize” information and political proposals while not “distract” neither the voter nor the candidate from policy making (and not politics selling).


Hillygus, S. & Shields, T. (2007). The Persuadable Voter: Campaign Strategy, Wedge Issues, And The Fragmentation Of American Politics. (Chapter 6). [forthcoming]. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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SDP 2007 related posts (2007)

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2007) “OII SDP 2007 (IV): Divisive Technology: The Impact of Information Technology on Presidential Campaigning” In ICTlogy, #46, July 2007. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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