When it comes to bumper stickers expressing opinions about the next election, my personal preference is “Any Functioning Adult.” But I also get the argument for “Giant Meteor.”
We are now officially in the 2020 election year, i.e. the latest “most important election of our lives.” And with the recent impeachment of President Trump by the U.S. House of Representatives, the 2020 presidential election campaign could become the angriest, ugliest and most disruptive since 1968.
Don’t be surprised if this is a record year for alcohol and/or antacid sales, increasing dramatically the closer we get to Nov. 3.
It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the types of advertisements we’ll be inundated with this summer: The Democrats printing pictures of Trump behind prison bars with big, red letters across the photo saying “IMPEACHED!” On the other side, Republicans running the exact same photo of the president, possibly with the same prison bars, only this time the big red letters spell out “COUP!” or “WITCH HUNT!”
With most people seemingly already committed to one side or the other, an interesting question arises: Do we even need political advertising anymore? Does it even work? Is there anyone left to persuade?
The answer appears to be yes, at least when it comes to the way many people are consuming news and forming their opinions — on social media.
Technology giants Google and Twitter both made headlines this fall when they announced they were banning some forms of political advertising while placing restrictions on others. Facebook has not imposed these restrictions so far, but has left the possibility of doing so open. Facebook also now requires that a party wishing to run political ads be officially authorized to do so, which includes a vetting process.
At the heart of these moves is the tactic of microtargeting. Microtargeting refers to online advertisements which use data about small groups of people in order to target specific issues that are important to individuals within that group.
This is an extremely useful tool when trying to get a person or small group to support your candidate, especially in a world where it seems most candidates have many warts to look past. Microtargeting allows the two major political parties to hone in on the one idea that matters most to you and then work to convince you that you need to vote for their candidate in order to keep that issue safe.
Prior to recent restrictions, political campaigns have been able to target you by uploading data they have collected on you to platforms like Google, Twitter and Facebook. They then receive data back from those platforms which allows the campaigns to put together groups of people who are about the same age, come from the same type of financial background and/or feel the same way about a specific topic.
Let’s say the most important issue to you when casting your ballot for president this year is gun control. By using microtargeting, you and all of your friends, assuming you all have the same position on gun control, are likely to see the exact same ad on social media asking you to support Candidate X because Candidate X is the only candidate in the race you can count on to support your position.
The main reason Google and Twitter have agreed to restrictions regarding this type of advertising is because they have taken heat over the past few years for running candidate ads the opposition has called false or misleading. The tech giants have previously taken the stance that they are only the platform for the ads and it’s up to the candidates to tell the truth.
Opponents of this microtargeting crackdown say it is a ban on free speech and aimed at suppressing support for a party or candidate.
Realistically, the kinds of messages you see in online ads are probably not that different from what you see and hear in print and audio ads. Politics is, and always has been, about the art of persuasion.
Which leads us back to the question: Is there anyone left to persuade?
In the 2008 film “Swing Vote,” Kevin Costner plays Bud Johnson, a man in New Mexico who, by a combination of circumstances, ends up as the only untallied vote left in the state. Because the national vote is deadlocked, whoever takes New Mexico’s electoral votes wins the election. One man’s vote will decide who becomes the next president of the United States.
Although the presidential election has never been that close, an argument could be made that these contests are getting closer all the time. Twice in the past 20 years, the winner of the presidential election lost the popular vote.
In what is considered the closest presidential election of all time, there was only a 500,000 vote difference between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000, out of more than 100,000,000 votes cast. That is a 0.005 percent difference.
No matter who is elected president this fall, let us hope he or she is elected solely by the American people; let us hope he or she is elected by educated voters; and let us hope that we can resist those, both foreign and domestic, who seek to divide us.
Jackson received a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of Idaho in 1993 and lived in Washington, D.C., for two years, completing internships for former U.S. Senator Steve Symms and former U.S. Representative Mike Crapo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.