Political Prototypes: Why Performances and Narratives Matter

While it has received comparatively little attention in the literature, during the 2004 presidential cycle the most technically innovative campaign was the re-election bid of George W. Bush. With online precinct captain programs complementing the work of a massive field effort, integrated databases, an expansive voter file, and micro-targeting models, party staffers and consultants on both sides of the aisle roundly acknowledge Republican Party dominance in the area of field and digital campaigning during Bush’s re-election bid. Indeed, while John Kerry’s election infrastructure collapsed in key swing states, the Bush campaign far exceeded the expectations of Democrats and their allied 527 groups.

Ironically, the victor’s uptake of technology during the 2004 campaign cycle is often an afterthought to the digital innovations of Howard Dean’s losing campaign. Four years later, another Democratic campaign received outsized attention, although this time it was a winning bid. Journalists and political practitioners praised the 2008 Obama campaign for its adept use of campaign and social media platforms such as My.BarackObama.com and Facebook, which has also inspired reams of scholarly analyses. For Republicans, however, John McCain’s loss was an easily understood defeat. Four years after Bush’s successful re-election campaign, the party’s nominee fell victim to a disastrous economic context, an unpopular president, an uninspired Republican base, and a polarizing vice presidential nominee. In short, there was not so much a gap between the respective capacities of the Democratic and Republican parties to wage a contemporary campaign, as a highly unfavorable electoral context.

Many political scientists would agree. And, they are right. And yet, while it might be empirically true that digital media did not win Obama the election, this assessment overlooks all the reasons that narratives about elections matter. The ways that campaigns perform their technology use and the stories political staffers and consultants themselves tell about the outcomes of campaigns matter a great deal for how future campaigns are conducted, which firms get hired to service them, the practitioners and skills that are valued, the organizational roles these staffers fill and their authority in campaigns and in parties, and where parties invest scarce resources. The stories that journalists tell about these things matter a great deal as well in terms of shaping the perceptions of these staffers, as well as those of donors and actors allied with the two parties, about what matters in a campaign and how to allocate their time and talents in the future.

As a result of the ways practitioners and journalists framed the Dean and Obama campaigns, and the ways staffers performed their uptake of technology on these electoral bids, the Democrats had two what I call ‘prototype campaigns’ that redirected millions of dollars towards massive infrastructure projects in digital platforms and voter data and attracted talented staffers from the technology industry into the political field. By ‘prototype campaign,’ I mean a campaign that comes to be seen as a ‘prototype,’ a model for future campaign practice and set of claims about how the world is that is actionable for campaigners.

Writing from a science and technology studies perspective, Suchman, Trigg, and Blomberg (2002) argue that prototypes have a “performative” dimension and align “multiple, discontinuous social worlds.” A prototype:

“exhibits new technological possibilities in ways that, through its demonstrable appreciation for members’ familiar practices and its rendering of those practices, made the new possibilities praxiologically relevant to practitioners (175).”

While most of the literature on prototypes focuses on small-scale artifacts in research labs, there is no theoretical reason why prototypes do not also exist at the field level. In a political context, this means creating new alignments among the stakeholders of political campaigns and new models for technological campaign practice. What is of consequence in making prototypes such as digitally enabled campaigns is the creation of new alignments between people, material things, and organizational forms through cultural and technical processes, and then narrating and materially demonstrating these new alignments as a model for future practice.

Culturally, protoypes are part of a broader “theater of use” that Smith (2009) has documented in the context of demonstrations within the technology industry: “they have long been used to convince colleagues, managers, customers and others about the efficacy of new ‘systems,’ either under development or ready for use” (449). While Smith looks at staged performances within the technology industry, campaigns such as Dean’s and Obama’s were culturally situated in particular ways through technological metaphors and staged technoscientific demonstrations for both the public and journalists who interpreted these campaigns for broader publics. For example, while scholars debate whether the Dean effort was actually ‘open source,’ we often miss the cultural work that the idea of an ‘open source’ campaign performed. The idea that Dean ran an ‘open source’ campaign worked culturally to attract top programming talent to the campaign, reoriented the party towards technological investment, and ultimately lead to significant market opportunities for former internet staffers.

The Republican Party, by contrast, never had a similar prototype of a technologically-mediated campaign. What is important here is that actors recognize a prototype as such – for example, their attribution that technology, data, and analytics have causal force over the outcome of an electoral campaign. For example, in contrast with the Democrats, few in the Republican Party network saw the need to reinvest in technological capacities after 2004 and even 2008. As as senior staffer on Bush’s re-election bid and prominent figure in GOP political consulting argues, ironically given its extensive innovations in internet use for field operations and fundraising, the Bush re-election campaign was not narrated and performed as a digital-intensive effort in the same way that the Dean and the Obama campaigns were, often quite deliberately:

“That everybody wanted to write that story and having been, like look, I mean having been involved in the few efforts that I would say that would legitimately qualify for this sort of – eventually kind of receive this treatment of ‘oh my god look at this like these you know what these guys were able to do with the internet you know’ I felt like number 1 there was never really that sort of credit attached to the Bush campaign…. We weren’t necessarily going out there and telling that on our own, no the Obama campaign didn’t necessarily do that either during the election. They certainly did a good job after, creating this… framing digital as essential to them in 08 – which I think that is actually kind of a dubious position to be in. Because in the sense of its impact, without the internet you guys would win in 08 period. Dean was a losing primary candidate and so it is interesting to me from that perspective what he did was much more impressive…. We never really had, I felt like it should have been more of an effort to kind of go after and just talk it up: this being kind of a central aspect to the win or at least very highly valued in sort of the integration with the field operations being something that was a contributing factor… A lot of the history gets written, and is driven by the public marketing of these efforts, and by the marketing of what the results mean. Even though, when you know you talk to people internally and they say that is a good deal more messy then that.”

What this consultant is suggesting is that this matters on a cultural level for attracting new talent to the field, providing a model for a new way of running campaigns, and opening markets for new services to offer campaigns and candidates. Indeed, after the failed 2008 Republican presidential bid a number of digital political consultants launched a “Rebuild the Party” effort focused on closing what they perceived to be the yawning digital gap between the Democrats and Republicans. That effort never achieved critical mass and was abandoned in early 2010, in part as a result of the fact that McCain’s defeat was easily explained away.


While the failed Dean campaign spawned a dozen technology consulting firms and political careers, including staffers who played pivotal information technology roles at the Democratic Party and in both of Obama’s runs, McCain’s loss did not create the same cultural reorientations needed to generate investment in new technologies and create new market opportunities. As a consequence, the Republican party-network failed to develop a similarly decentralized group of consultancies, training organizations, and staffers specializing in data, new media, and analytics comparable to the Democratic network that emerged after the 2004 campaign cycle. As a senior analytics staffer on the Romney campaign details:

“So we win ’04. I think a sense of complacency frankly sets in across the right. Whereas you have the Democrats who are facing a situation not unlike what we are facing right now, which is how did we just lose an election where we really should have won or at least we feel we should have won. What did they do that we didn’t that we should be investing in? And, they went out and invested aggressively in various institutions and planted a number of seeds which I think have come to fruition like the Analyst Institute, the New Organizing Institute, and Catalyst. I point to those three institutions as kind of the pillars of this liberal data analytics ecosystem that were really the key drivers behind the success of 2012, if not directly then at least indirectly in the buildup to 2012.”