Department Alumnus Key Player in Upending How We Run Political Campaigns

The world of political campaigning is nothing like what it used to be. And the change is not just about social media and the emergence of new technologies. These are critical parts of the story, but only when combined with the reliable data that campaigns can use to get the right message to the right people.

We have learned a lot in recent years about election campaigns. As Distinguished Teaching Professor and Regents Outstanding Teacher Daron Shaw explains in this video, political scientists have increasingly turned to experimental data to determine the effectiveness of campaigns. And as Sasha Issenberg discussed in this Texas Politics Speaker Series Video, and in his book, The Victory Lab, there has been a scientific revolution in campaigns based on these field experiments, combined with commercial marketing tools providing individual-level data that campaigns use to statistically model voting behavior.

Now, a Department of Government alumnus is helping this revolution continue and evolve. Simultaneously, philanthropic donations to the department are providing students new opportunities to forge a career path at the intersection of technology and political communication.

Jeff Mason graduated from the Department of Government in 2003. Inspired by his classes with professors such as Daron Shaw, Jeff entered the world of political consulting. From 2006-2008, he was the director of targeting and voter contact at the Republican National Committee, and he is now senior director of data structure and targeting at Targeted Victory, a digital advertising agency.

Jeff’s current story begins with a 2014 “Off the Grid National Survey” sponsored by Targeted Victory, Google, Public Opinion Strategies, Global Strategy Group, and Well & Lighthouse. The survey demonstrates the decreasing effectiveness of reaching key voters through live TV advertising and the increasing importance of streaming, smartphone and tablet viewing, as well as viewing recorded TV through TiVO or DVR, which allows viewers to skip through commercials (obviously bypassing political ads in the process).

Jeff’s work involves deploying technology that can win elections in this new campaign environment. A central component is a more scientific approach to reaching the target audience, and driving down the cost of doing so. Targeted Victory’s audience-based television makes it possible for small-budget campaigns to run their operations with the sophistication of the big media buyers, and their new advertising platform makes it possible to coordinate media buys across all platforms with a few clicks of the mouse. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “Borrowing lessons and personnel from Silicon Valley, political operatives are figuring out how to harness big batches of data to upend the multi-billion dollar business of American politics.”

On campus, the recently endowed Applied Political Strategies Scholarship is giving students an opportunity to get involved in this fast-evolving world. Traditionally, department internship programs have focused on legislative or executive branch opportunities. This new scholarship opens doors for students whose primary interest is in running and winning election campaigns.

“The APS Scholarship allows UT students the opportunity to develop and apply their theoretical and analytical knowledge in real campaigns,” says Professor Shaw. “Listening to professors and reading the research is one thing, but trying to understand the connection between voters and candidates in a live election is an invaluable experience for anyone interested in democratic politics.”