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Today’s Data-Driven Campaigns Go Back to 1970 and Father Drinan | Commentary

In the spring of 1970, the Rev. Robert F. Drinan was organizing his campaign to run against the incumbent Congressman, Philip Philbin, in the primary for the 3rd Congressional District of Massachusetts. This campaign would give raise to the modern usage of “data” in political campaigns to ensure effective and targeted messaging to the base voters or particular constituencies.

Congressman Philbin, a 28-year veteran of Congress, was the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee and a strong supporter of the war in Vietnam. In February 1970, a caucus had been held to choose a single peace candidate to run against Congressman Philbin. The three individuals competing were John Kerry, who later became a senator and secretary of State; Chandler Harrison “Harry” Stevens, a former independent state representative and candidate for the congressional seat; and Drinan, dean of the Boston College Law School. After a few ballots Drinan won a majority and both Kerry and Stevens agreed to be co-chairs of the Drinan campaign.

Harry Stevens worked as a political scientist at MIT’s Sloane School and had cooperated with Thomas Sheridan, MIT Professor of Engineering and Applied Psychology. Sheridan, who became Director of the Human-Machine Systems Laboratory at MIT, had already been developing electronic means to interact with large audiences at public meetings. Together, they focused in the Drinan campaign on enhancing participatory politics using early computers to obtain real-time feedback from multiple participants.

During the course of the Drinan campaign, the United States invaded Cambodia and colleges throughout the country closed early. Suddenly the Drinan campaign had more than 1,000 students volunteers. Stevens and Sheridan devised a novel computer-based method of using these student volunteers. The students went door-to-door, in the district, asking questions and completing a questionnaire. The answers were returned to campaign headquarters and entered into a mainframe computer for later use.

The canvasser, based on the interview, ranked the resident on a five level scale by considering their support for Drinan and their antiwar views. Canvasser also checked off specific issues of special interest to the resident, for example, teenage drug use, education, inflation, or poverty. Those residents who were strongly supportive of Drinan and disapproved the war were later asked to actively help in the campaign and contribute funds. Those in the middle level were further solicited to support Drinan. Those in the most negative level were assiduously avoided, hoping that they would not feel the primary was competitive enough to vote.

Two weeks before the primary, a mailing was sent out to residents with Drinan’s position on the specific issues that was important to them. During the week before the primary, Drinan’s supporters received a mailing reminding them to vote. On the day before the primary, they received a telephone call. On primary day, Drinan’s supporters manned the polling places, checked off the voters and had teams of people late in the afternoon to remind those who had not yet voted to vote or allow someone to take them to their polling place.

Congressman Philbin lost, largely because he had not taken his opposition seriously. He was unaware of the potential impact of this new computerized technology that was leveraged against him. Drinan and his campaign had the ability to get out their vote by directly reaching out to supporters and communicating with people based on the issues that were important to them. Today, this technology is widely used by many candidates for office, because it is effective. This approach originated in the Drinan campaign, and Stevens and Sheridan deserve credit for having introduced this extremely valuable approach to political campaigning.

Arthur S. Obermayer served as treasurer to Drinan’s 1970 campaign.