One of the great questions in political circles these days is about finding the pathways to influence voters, in an increasingly dispersed electorate. As I sometimes put it when I ask local politicos about this: it used to be that everyone in politics knew that you needed to win over, say, perennial ward captain Mrs. X on D Street, or Mr. Z who organizes his Russian neighborhood, or so-and-so in the IBEW -- because those were the spheres where people got their political advise, and those were the people who had risen to be influential in those spheres. Today, that's changed dramatically. Boston is full of people who are interested in politics, but are not in the circles of any of those traditional spheres. So, who is influencing them? And if you're running a political campaign, how do you find those influencers?
Sociological studies in recent years tells us that 10 percent of Americans are "Influentials," who tell the rest of the shmoes "what to buy, which politicians to support, and where to vacation," as Ed Keller and Jon Berry put it in their, um, influential 2003 book.
About a year-and-a-half ago, a report from George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management and Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet & Society showed that there is likewise a sub-group of an "extremely influential and politically hyperactive group of citizens who play an outsized role in American elections" -- a group the writers dub "Poli-fluentials." The same researchers have now released a second report, providing more information about who exactly these folks are. In particular, the report shows how the "Poli-fluentials" differ from "Donors," who contribute money to campaigns and causes, but don't influence others; and "Influencers" (more aptly, I think, would be Apoli-fluentials) who are active and influential people generally, but don't get active in political campaigns.
What the study finds is that Donors, as opposed to Poli-fluentials, are incredibly impassive in their political activity: they pay close attention to politics, are avid consumers of political news and information, and (by definition) write checks -- but other than that they make almost no effort on behalf of their candidates or causes. They don't join local committees or activist groups; they don't go to town meetings or political events; they don't send or forward political messages or videos.
But aside from those activities, they are hard to tell apart from Poli-flentials. The two groups are demographically similar, by income, age, education, and media habits.
So, if you're running a campaign and using donor lists as your basis for sending out information; using voter lists to send out mailers; and using demographic data to target signs and ad buys... a lot of that effort is going into the black hole of "Donor" types, who are not using it to influence anyone else. How can you zero in and talk to that sub-group of Poli-fluentials, who will multiply your efforts manyfold in their spheres of influence?
Hint: I'm doing it right now.
The way to find Poli-fluentials is through political blogs. How 'bout that?
Basically, and to oversimplify, the fact that you're reading a political blog right now makes you twice as likely to be a Poli-fluential than those who are otherwise similar to you, but who don't read political blogs. (Taking action at the suggestion of a blog, or leaving a comment on a blog is, unsurprisingly, even more predictive.)
Interestingly, the most likely are those who read blogs several times a week, rather than daily (or weekly, or less); and those who read three-to-five blogs rather than more than five (or fewer than three). "In short, it is the moderate consumers of blogs... who are the most likely to be Poli-fluentials."
An important caveat: this report is based on surveys conducted in 2007, asking about political participation and activity in the 2004 and 2006 elections. Things might have already changed quite a lot since the 2008 election cycle, which drew a lot more people into the process in many, many ways.
Read the paper for yourself, and I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments.