September 26, 1960. If you immediately recognized that as a date that had a profound impact on U.S. electoral history, you qualify as a political junkie.
In case that date didn’t immediately ring a bell, I’ll remind you: John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon squared off in the first nationally televised political debate, drawing an audience of roughly 80 million, or half the U.S. population. The well-known results: those who listened to the debate on radio generally felt Nixon won. But on TV, the contrast between the young, vivacious Kennedy and Nixon, pale and underweight from a recent hospital stay, led viewers to the opposite conclusion.
The debate marked a sea change in the way visuals influenced the electorate, and thus campaign strategy. I believe we are at a similar inflection point today, as research and advanced data analytics are poised to reshape political strategy for the foreseeable future.
Television wasn’t entirely new to the 1960 election: Dwight Eisenhower ran what’s credited as the firstpolitical television spot advertising campaign eight years earlier. Nor were debates themselves new. But with television adoption reaching critical mass in U.S. households, those trends converged to shift the dynamics.
In 2016, we see parallels in political marketing. Certainly, research and analytics have been at the core of advertising strategy for decades. What’s new is the amount and depth of data, and technology that allows it to be segmented in seemingly endless ways.