Technological innovation has been a deciding force in politics since the early days of snail mail and printed fliers. The first televised presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy ushered in the modern political media era. The radio audience famously favored Nixon, and the TV audience favored Kennedy. Though direct mail and television are still tremendously influential, contemporary politics is dominated by social media and big data.

Through the 2016 campaign season TechRepublic has reported on the business of communication technology and politics. At the #DNC in Philadelphia, I discussed the history of election tech with former Al Jazeera America reporter and BitTorrent News anchor Michael Shure.


Ronald Reagan trounced challenger Walter Mondale and won reelection.

  • Karl Rove pioneered direct mail microtargeting for the Reagan campaign. Direct mail ads helped improve candidate name recognition, and down ticket, regional get-out-the-vote campaigns.
  • Apple released the first Macintosh computer.


George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis.

  • Cable news and national advertising, particularly the notorious Willie Horton ad, powered the first truly national televised political campaign. Prior, most television ads were limited to local and regional network affiliates.
  • The first transatlantic fiber cable carried tens of thousands of simultaneous calls.


Bill Clinton beat incumbent George Bush.

  • The early 90s were the age of the cable talk show. Bill Clinton played saxophone on Arsenio Hall, and MTV, in an attempt to attract and energize young voters, Rocked the Vote.
  • AT&T unveiled the first video phone, for the low, low price of $1,499.

SEE: Seven ways to build brand awareness into your digital strategy (Tech Pro Research report)


Bill Clinton won reelection over Republican challenger Bob Dole.

  • Prior to the mid-90s, campaigns relied on legions of volunteers making telephone calls to voters to help increase issue awareness. By the mid-90s, campaigns gathered demographic information from magazine subscriber lists and used the data to populate call lists. Data-driven robocalls became a mainstay of marketing and political campaigns thereafter.
  • In a t12-month span, public internet servers grew from 1 million to 10 million.


George W. Bush defeated Vice President Al Gore in a contentious election battle decided by the Supreme Court.

  • By the early 2000s dial-up Internet was antiquated, and high-speed data connections drove the first internet bubble. With speedy home connections came web advertising. Political campaigns were early adopters of a technology that was the bane of all web surfers: static banner ads.
  • The Y2K threat emerged, was hyped by the media, managed and mitigated by corporate IT departments around the world, then was quickly forgotten by the public.


President George W. Bush won reelection over Senator John Kerry.

  • “Ours was the first movement looking for a leader,” said Howard Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi. The Dean campaign pioneered email marketing and crowdfunding to raise massive sums of money from small grassroots donors.
  • In the internet age snail mail seemed outmoded. However, microtargeting and direct mail fliers were particularly effective in Arkansas and West Virginia, and helped George Bush win reelection.
  • The first podcast client, iPodderX, was released.


Barack Obama defeated senator John McCain to become the first African American president.

  • 2008 was the first social media campaign. Powered email marketing and crowdfunded donation, the Obama campaign used Twitter and Facebook to organized volunteers, disseminate messages directly to voters, and mobilize young voters.
  • Microsoft attempted, and failed, to acquire Yahoo! for nearly $47 billion.

READ: Hillary Clinton launches official campaign podcast called “With Her” (CBS News)


Barack Obama won reelection over challenger Mitt Romney.

  • By 2012 social media was mature, and big data was an emerging force in business and politics. Jim Messina, Obama campaign manager, hired sophisticated data scientists from Silicon Valley and ran thousands of simulated elections in battleground states across the country. The team changed messaging tactics in real time, depending on the outcome of election simulations.
  • Facebook went public, with IPO stock trading for $38. In mid-2016 stock was valued $122 per share.


Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump square off in most high tech election in modern history.

  • Today, big data is a constant presence in business and campaign tech. Low cost, automated, mobile, programmatic marketing is the future of political and advertising campaigns.
  • Yahoo! sold in 2016 to Verizon for $4.8 billion.

Over the course of the campaign TechRepublic will continue to report on key takeaways, history, and trends of election technology. We hope to uncover unique insights and find ways business can benefit from campaign innovations. If you’re a historian, data scientist, social media professional, or inquisitive TechRepublic reader we’d love your ideas on how to inspect campaign social media data. Please leave a comment below or ping us on Twitter @TechRepublic.

Technology chronology dates were curated from The People History, and Tom Merritt.

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