Campaign 2016: Our technology-enabled Bizarro World election

In honor of Presidents' Day here in the United States, we take an unflinching look at the state of the current election cycle. Thanks to the disruptive force of technology, we're having a Bizarro World election.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor on

It's time to talk election. I know this is a technology publication, but this is a technology election -- influenced, enabled, and even haunted by technology to a level never before seen in an American election cycle.

Take, for example, the Donald Trump phenomenon. Does anyone really think that Trump would have won New Hampshire by a surprisingly huge margin -- while spending the least -- without the power of social media? Trump took his TV fame and amplified it, 140 characters at a time to his 6.1 million followers, giving him a constant, ongoing, cost-free reach that was then multiplied by retweeets and reposts, which were then picked up in mainstream media, which then added fuel to the fire.

Without The Online, Bernie Sanders wouldn't be able to brag about his millions of individual donors. Of course, The Online wouldn't have existed in its current form without the big companies, of the size he once wanted to seize, providing social networking reach and infrastructure. The U.S. government may well have created the Internet itself, but it sure didn't enable PayPal for donations to presidential candidates.

And then there's Hillary Clinton. To many Democrats, she's the inevitable nominee of the party, but she's fighting an unexpected, surprisingly powerful, and altogether mundane demon: her email. Last week, another 554 Clinton email messages were dripped to the media by the State Department. Of those, 84 were upgraded in terms of their classification level. Even as the election boils on, a possible FBI probe into Mrs. Clinton looms. I wrote about this in Email may not be Hillary's undoing, but it may be the straw that breaks her campaign's back.

Much has been written about the conflict between so-called "establishment" and "outsider" candidates (as if a billionaire and a man who served in Congress for the last 25 years can be considered outsiders).

Candidates who, in previous years, would have been naturals -- Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Hillary Clinton -- are being run ragged by those candidates who represent contrarian, anti-status quo views.Take, for example, the Jerry Springer show disguised as a debate we saw Saturday night. In what normal political landscape would one have seen the Republican front runner accuse the previous GOP president for lying and getting us into an untenable war? In what normal political landscape would we have seen that Republican front runner say Planned Parenthood has done "wonderful things"?

No matter what side of the political spectrum you're on, you have to acknowledge such statements most likely set the heads spinning among the Republican faithful -- and yet it's their leading candidate making the statements. Such a thing would not have happened if technology hadn't let Donald Trump bypass the gatekeepers of national media and take his unusual rhetoric straight to the people -- creating a popularity the old-school media could not ignore.

Or take the recent New Hampshire primary. An avowed socialist (yeah, democratic socialist, whatever) won 151,000 votes, beating Mrs. Clinton's 95,000 vote showing. More to the point, Sanders got more votes than the first and second place winners of the Republican primary combined. When a socialist -- in New Hampshire, the "Live Free or Die" state -- trounces a woman who was an American first lady, senator, and secretary of state 60 to 38 percent, we are living in Bizarro World indeed.

Big data in election politics

And then, of course, there's the big data aspect of the election. Both the RNC and the DNC run big data operations, building databases of voters, likely voters, swing voters, and never-before voters.

The 2012 election cycle showed the parties just how important data management was to the election. While the issues and the candidates certainly influenced voter choice, the fact that the Romney operation misallocated resources based on data analysis errors didn't help the former Massachusetts governor's run for the White House.

While both campaigns operated whale-sized big data operations, the Obama campaign's project Narwhal used predictive analytics to help bring out the vote, while Romney's ORCA merely crashed servers, leaving volunteers beached and benched without their data-drive apps to guide them.

2016: Smartphones for President

This year, the two parties both claim they've upped their game. The RNC is making available a 300 terabyte library of voter data, with records going back more than 20 years. Meanwhile, the DNC is building on its 2012 big data success.

In an interview published in ZDNet in 2012 with Chris Wegrzyn, Director of Data Architecture at the Democratic National Committee, we gained some insight into that strategy:

We're looking to a future, where we bring in more of that unstructured intelligence, that information from social media, from how people are interacting with our staff, with the campaign in trying to do something intelligent with that. Our future is bringing all of those systems, all of those ideas together, and exposing them to that fleet of analysts and everybody who wants it.

And yet, the chaos and troubling behavior we've come to know from our politicians managed to reach even into the raised floors and air conditioned spaces of the campaigns' data centers. Earlier this year, a Sanders staffer accessed Clinton records from the unified DNC voter management system.

In retaliation, Sanders' access to the voter data was suspended -- and in return for that, the Sanders campaign sued the DNC at the rate of $600,000 per day for each day that access to the absolutely essential voter information was denied to the Sanders compaign.

The data-related issues

Sadly, while the candidates are able to tweet smack downs at each other with impunity, and have discovered that cataloging every interest, intention, and possible contribution may lead to more donations and more votes, the candidates have spent considerably less time discussing the issues We The Internet care about, ranging from privacy to encryption to cyberdefense to our online rights.

In fact, it's not clear how much the candidates even know about the technology that runs our world.

Hillary Clinton is now famous through her email messages for talking about her "berry phone" and for wiping her servers "with a cloth or something". Is this the person we want to answer the phone at 3am when the Russians have blasted through another government firewall like the Chinese did with the Office of Personnel Management?

Obama's gadgets: What tech does the president use?

Jeb Bush, in his quest to seem transparent, distributed a pile of Outlook files containing correspondence with constituents while he was governor of Florida -- complete with names, addresses, and even social security numbers of those constituents. He also doesn't appear to support the idea of encryption, saying that it helps "evildoers" do their evil.

A few weeks ago, I did an entire analysis on where our candidates stood on the matter of encryption. In addition to the above examples of candidate technological prowess, we saw that beyond tweeting insults, Donald Trump is not entirely sure about this whole Internet thing. He thinks Bill Gates could help, but he is also willing to shut down the Internet to people "who want to kill us."

Marco Rubio wants to pressure companies to comply with providing back doors. John Kasich wants to "solve the encryption problem". We're not really sure where Ben Carson stands on technology policy, but he doesn't seem to support professional engineers, stating in a tweet, "It is important to remember that amateurs built the Ark and it was the professionals that built the Titanic." So, there's that.

A world turned on its head

Back in the 1960s, DC Comics introduced the concept of Bizarro World, where everything is a bit backward. Earth is spelled htraE, Batman is the world's worst detective, the planet is physically a cube, and Aquaman can't swim.

In Bizarro World, there is a slogan that describes how society operates. It goes like this: "Us do opposite of all Earthly things! Us hate beauty! Us love ugliness! Is big crime to make anything perfect on Bizarro World!"

In the debate on Saturday, the leading Republican candidate accused another of, and I quote, "Two days ago [Bush] said he would take his pants off and moon everybody." This proved to be oddly accurate, because a week earlier, the son of our 41st president and the brother of our 43rd president stated, and I quote here, too, "I could drop my pants. Moon the whole crowd."

Technology is enabling candidates to reach their audiences without a filter -- but whether that's good or bad remains to be seen. Technology is enabling candidates to build predictive forecasts to help them spend their ad dollars. But whether we all want to be micro-targeted with never-ending negative advertising remains to be seen.

We are truly in the midst of a Bizarro World election. Without our social media removing the filters on our candidates expression, the traditional political operatives would have ensured this was a much more predictable, much more sedate election. Whether that would have been better than the free-for-all childish dust-up we now find ourselves in remains to be seen.

No matter what, it's bound to be entertaining. But whether any of our current candidates will be good for America, well, that also remains to be seen. Personally, I have my doubts.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

Editorial standards