The Rise of the Political "Cult": How Political Marketing Has Increased the Intensity of Voter Loyalty 

Words and Photos by Niklas Walker

If you lived in Boston, and planned to sleep in on November 7th, 2020, you were in for quite the wakeup call. By 11:00 AM, one of the city’s busiest main roads – Boylston Street – was overrun by honking cars, American flags, and homemade signs celebrating the highly anticipated outcome of the 2020 Presidential Election. Joe Biden had won, and the tumultuous years of President Donald Trump were set to fade in the rearview mirror, for at least four years. 

As a photojournalist, days like 2020’s Election Day are the ones you’d die for. It was essential that I went out and shot the chaos outside, especially given the city-wide response. There were, however, two distinct reactions that took place. For those leaning left in the historically blue state of Massachusetts, the election’s outcome was cause for a block party. For the impassioned conservatives of Boston, it was means for protest. 

Up the road, at the Massachusetts State House, pro-Trump supporters had congregated in front of the golden dome, affixed with picket signs and American flag emblazoned clothing. Their anger lied in the pandemic-forced mail-in ballot system, one that many right leaning voters believed would allow for easier voter fraud. They claimed the election was stolen, among other things. In a video captured by Quincy J. Walters, a podcast producer at WBUR, one protestor claimed that Joe Biden was “a Chinese agent.” 

This protest was certainly the first time I had ever seen the extent of toxicity that was possible between the right and the left in person. Being on the ground, in the moment, shooting photos, was the first time I physically encountered the canyon-sized divide between liberals and conservatives. Shouting matches broke out. Some Biden supporters stood inches away from the faces of Trump supporters, each of them climbing the ladder of instigation – baiting one another into a verbal altercation.

Despite this, for a moment – about an hour into the protest – demonstrators from both sides would stand shoulder to shoulder, existing amongst each other despite their deeply stark differences. 

The moment would not last.

Soon after the moment of peaceful protest, the conservative demonstrators were sorely outnumbered by Biden supporters, motivating them to leave the State House. During this transition, a fight broke out, leading to a pro-Biden demonstrator falling under arrest. Energizing the crowd, the anti-Trump demonstration quickly adapted into an anti-police protest.

One protestor, Azarias Rivera, handcuffed himself to the fence of the State House. Rivera claimed he would remove himself from the fence once the arrested protestor was released from custody. For a while, demonstrations against the police continued. Obscenities were screamed at officers: pigs, the crowd called them. The protest died down only after a police sergeant commanded his squad to turn their body cams on, insinuating some level of action should the protest continue. 

Returning home, I realized that the photos I had taken captured the duality of American spirit that I find so fascinating. What makes people feel so strongly about a political party that they come out and demonstrate? How is it that an entire subsection of American voters believe that the election was fraudulent? What leads people to make signs calling an 80-year-old presidential candidate “daddy?” Political marketing has ties in all of this, and the new, unconventional methods of such have pushed political identity to an all-new intensity – for better, or for worse. 

It is reported in Suffolk Law professor Dr. Brian Conley’s paper “Thinking What He Says: Market Research and the Making of Donald Trump’s 2016 Presidential Campaign,” that fewer than three-in-ten Americans have expressed trust in the federal government in every major poll conducted since 2007. Despite what seems to be common unity in the distrust of the federal government, the divide between the left and right has grown tremendously. 

Since the tumultuous 2016 presidential election, partisanship and the fracture within American politics has only grown bigger, and none of it is by mistake. Political marketing has changed drastically over the last twenty years – favoring targeted and analytical strategies over traditional TV or print advertising – and the omnipotence of mass media has ushered in a new age of deliberate polarization.

Polarization is the intentional division of two groups with different beliefs. Conley, believes this started in the 1990s with national news stations that discovered segmentation, something that was already crucial to typical commercial advertising strategy.

"Unless there’s a president that can please both sides, I think we’ve seen the death of neutrality in politics as we know it.”

“Ted Turner [founder of CNN] and others started to identify the power of segmentation,” said Conley. “And you kind of try to figure out how these different groups think — what their aspirations are, what their interests are, what their demands are, what their hopes and dreams are, that kind of thing.”

By tapping into the personal identities of political loyalists, campaign teams are able to validate their opinions and further the grasp they have on consumers and voters. The 2004 Bush campaign used non-traditional advertising placements to activate his voter base without getting lost in the saturation of political ads. 

“They went to all these places that were not traditional markets, or not traditional channels, and targeted there,” said Conley. “They were like, ‘In every neighborhood, there's like a person who is kind of opinionated, and a little bit more vocal about their opinions. They're the ones that tell you whether or not a local restaurant is that good. And we want to target those people, find out what TV shows [and] channels they watch, and then get them talking up our campaign.’”

The addition of polarization in political marketing has pushed campaigns to confirm the bias of a political party’s loyal members. A common method of choice were television and print ads that had the goal of disparaging another candidate’s platform. Reaffirming someone’s displeasure of a candidate can feed into one’s sense of loyalty, calling them to action at the voting booth to make sure the candidate that does confirm a voter’s opinions makes it into the Oval Office. 

"That's the bigger kind of concern, I think, in our political space. Are we at a point where people are only responding if folks break conventions?"

Gianna Di Cristo, 21, is a junior at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, has dealt with the effects of political marketing in her own life. Like many young adults, the generational gap between parent and child can often be a barrier, especially in regards to politics. Di Cristo – who was born and raised in the multicultural Queens, New York – is a self proclaimed liberal, but has parents who tend to lean right. Oftentimes, there is a stream of Fox News advertising playing through the family’s TV speakers. 

“I think the goal is to always be provocative, eye-catching, and to say things that make you go, ‘huh? Oh, wait.’” said Di Cristo. “Sometimes it can be thought provoking and other times it’s so obnoxious that you write it off as the other side being insane.”

Lately, traditional television and print marketing has proven to have little effect on the outcome of an election. A Yale study conducted in 2020 that focused on the 2016 presidential race found that typical political ads only affected the voting outcome of  0.007% of the 34,000-person sample size. 

What is working is non-conventional methods of voter reaffirmation. During the 2016 Trump campaign, Conley believes that Trump’s personal attacks on opponents connected with a demographic that appreciated Trump’s rawness within a historically sanitized political race. The strategy, however, is one that raises concern. 

“Somebody might say they wouldn't have connected with people if they weren't willing to be unconventional,” explained Conley. “That's the bigger kind of concern, I think, in our political space. Are we at a point where people are only responding if folks break conventions? Going so far as to be dehumanizing or indicting individuals by name, we just didn't have that before. It hasn't really been done in contemporary politics.”

With campaign strategy moving away from standard commercial advertising tactics and moving closer towards unedited streams of consciousness on campaign trails and social media, it can be difficult to see a future in which supporters of either political party find a middle ground. 

“There’s always something going on,” said Di Cristo. “I would love nothing more than to see bipartisanship in Congress and in society but I have a terrible feeling we are too far gone. Unless there’s a president that can please both sides, I think we’ve seen the death of neutrality in politics as we know it.”

While Ted Turner and CNN laid the groundwork for segmentation in the 90s, it was Barack Obama's first presidential campaign that became the blueprint for nearly every political campaign following it. A massively saturated and incredibly well-produced multimedia onslaught, Obama's 2008 campaign quite literally modernized political marketing and opened the doors for voters to become closer to the people representing them than ever before. 

To understand how ridiculously advanced this was, we'd have to look back and dissect the history of political marketing from the 60s onwards. For a typical American, political marketing instantly conjures up visions of television ads, “paid for by ___” disclaimers, and signage in the yards of suburban neighborhoods, but the rise of media post-1960 -- specifically in TV and radio -- had completely changed the way politicians market themselves to voters. 

While some merits of classic campaigning have stuck around – namely stump speeches and public appearances – TV and radio quickly became another battleground in political marketing. Perhaps one of the most famous is Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad, a horrifying vision of nuclear war that appealed to voters thanks to the relevance of the Cold War. The ad was strategically aired at around 10 PM, during the biblical film “David and Bathsheba”, which was considered a family movie. Johnson hoped that parents watching the ad would connect the girl in the advertisement to their own children. The ad was so effective that it was only ever broadcast once, despite being one of the most famous and talked about moments in political marketing.

A little less than 40 years later, as media entered the new millennia, TV advertisements were commonplace and the Internet had become the new marketing wild west. The internet was considered a “footnote” during the controversial 2000 election, but became a focus for marketers during the 2004 campaigns. While George W. Bush and Joe Kerry would place a new focus on their websites in the 2004 election, it was Democratic hopeful Howard Dean that pioneered internet-based marketing. Through a grassroots online campaign, Dean would smash Bill Clinton’s previous fundraising record of $10.3 million, raising $14.8 million in the third quarter of 2003 alone.

Howard Dean's campaign website, widely considered a breakthrough in internet marketing

In 2008, Obama would build on Dean’s internet-based platform with one of the biggest multimedia campaigns to ever be used in a political campaign. Much like Dean’s campaign, Obama based his multimedia approach on personability and accessibility. His mobile campaign, Obama Mobile, was massively successful, especially on the text messaging front. Obama’s Vice Presidential announcement was texted directly to supporters, reaching a record 2.9 million people - according to Nielsen Mobile - and was the single largest mobile marketing event ever at the time. By creating a direct line of communication to a service that typically is reserved for a voter’s most personal contacts, Obama successfully made a personal connection with his supporters, strengthening his campaign’s reach. 

Obama was even the first to put advertisements into video games via a deal with EA, entering a market of younger Americans that had never been touched before. According to Van Baker, an analyst for technology market research firm Gartner Inc., Obama's campaign targeted video games to reach the 18-to-34-year-old-male, a demographic that is "hard to get to because they don’t watch much TV and they don’t read a lot." 

Early voting ads in NBA Live 09, courtesy of AP

Through the use of unconventional marketing tactics and saturation in every medium of communication imaginable, Obama evolved from a relatively unknown Illinois senator to a presidential favorite within one campaign cycle. 

Today, to appeal to voters and fold them under their platforms, politicians have continued to trend into deeply personal forms of communication. Donald Trump’s aggressive use of Twitter as a soapbox has allowed conservative voters to view him as a brash, but honest politician that does not falter to typical political sanitization. This is also used by left leaning politicians. Bernie Sanders holds virtual town halls via Zoom, connecting himself to those from any part of the country thanks to tech. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez uses Instagram Live to connect to her voters, often chatting with viewers while doing ordinary “non-political” things like making cocktails. 

Since the advent of modern communications technology, politicians have fought hard to stay in touch with every demographic they can. As typical political proceedings like TV and radio ads become informational noise to modern voters, politicians must adopt new forms of communication and marketing to bolster their grip on Americans and their vote, leading to unconventional and sometimes controversial methods of marketing. The outcome? A sometimes rabid voter base that pledges their loyalty and support.

Obviously, that’s exactly what the campaigns spending millions of dollars on advertising want. Saturating media with their brand, image, and ideals – while also making politics personal – is a surefire way of gaining support.

Part of one of the most influential teams in political marketing is novelist and former Obama ’08 Blog Director Sam Graham-Felsen. 

Hailing from Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood in Boston, Graham-Felsen attended Harvard University and acted as a writer and columnist for The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper. In the mid 2000s, up until 2007 and his soon entry into the Obama campaign, he worked for The Nation magazine, focusing on political coverage. 

Once he joined the Obama campaign, Graham-Felsen would take control of, allowing voters easy accessibility to the ideals and platforms that the campaign stood on, and building strategic relationships with alternative media in order to maintain dominance in the new era of internet marketing. 

“In 2007, before Twitter really took off and Facebook was still kind of nascent, the blogosphere was still where early social media was happening,” said Graham-Felsen. “People who had something to say were creating blogs. We wanted to create that feeling of authenticity and – not exactly grittiness – but we wanted to create a feeling that even the Obama website, which was clearly a highly professional campaign website, had a kind of grassroots feeling.”

“There were always these different narratives being pushed, but the Internet team [felt like] ‘we don’t even need to bother going to The New York Times,’ because we have so many millions of people who are going to consume our content from"

The blog’s goal was to expand Obama’s perceived demographic, informing voters who may have been on the fence that many of the people who supported Obama came from all walks of life. 

“[We wanted] to give people the sense that the people who were responding to Obama weren’t just who everyone might expect,” explained Graham-Felsen. “They weren’t just people from the cities. We had farmers from Nebraska, firefighters from Wyoming, and coal miners [from Nevada].”

Graham-Felsen was also responsible for acting like a liaison between the campaign and the internet’s expansive blogosphere, dispelling rumors and asking blogs to write about the campaign. Graham-Felsen even offered exclusives to alternative media, bypassing the likes of The New York Times and The Washington Post in favor for proto-influencers and their blogs. When an infamous rumor regarding Obama’s birthplace  – which Obama’s detractors claimed to be Kenya, thus removing him from presidential eligibility – went viral (labeled as the Birther theory), Graham-Felsen and the campaign’s internet team gave blogs the exclusive look at the presidential hopeful’s birth certificate. 

“We were like, ‘let’s give the first image of the birth certificate to a blog called Daily Kos,’” said Graham-Felsen. “That was one of the biggest political blogs back then. I sent it to the people I knew at Daily Kos saying, ‘here’s an exclusive piece of content for you guys, you guys can post it on your blog before the mainstream media gets a look at it.’ That was a way of building good will with them and showing that we prioritized the grassroots blogosphere over The New York Times or The Washington Post.” 

Sidestepping large scale mainstream media was impressive on its own, but the Obama campaign sidestepped media as a whole –mainstream or otherwise – thanks to its impressive email and social media following. Graham-Felsen says that the email list they grew during the campaign contained 13 million emails, and - according to Obama spokesperson Hari Sevugan - the campaign had amassed nearly 1 million accounts registered on by June of 2008. These initiatives excelled at personally connecting with supporters in a way that couldn’t be replicated by other campaigns at the time, as well as delivering news directly to their voter base. 

“We felt like the mainstream media has its own agenda, which is to be skeptical of a candidate, or to try to poke holes in things,” said Graham-Felsen. “There were always these different narratives being pushed, but the Internet team [felt like] ‘we don’t even need to bother going to The New York Times,’ because we have so many millions of people who are going to consume our content from, from Barack Obama’s Facebook feed, from Barack Obama’s YouTube channel, so why even bother trying to get the mainstream media to play ball with us when we can get the exact message we want out there?”

This philosophy was evident in the implementation of the aforementioned Obama Mobile. While mainstream media outlets were chasing the scoop on any sort of news regarding the election, the Obama campaign tried to get news out directly to their supporters, without a middleman.

“After someone becomes the nominee, the biggest piece of news about the campaign is who is going to be the vice-presidential running mate,” said Graham-Felsen. “Every single mainstream media outlet is dying to be the one to find out first. It was kind of a way of sticking our thumb at the mainstream media and building our text message list. It was both something that we did out of trying to truly honor our supporters and building our grassroots movement, but also very savvy marketing at the same time.” 

"We only saw the positive sides of what the internet could do for politics. We saw some of the negative sides but we felt ultimately that the positive sides would outweigh the negative sides."

Obama’s 2008 campaign brought internet-based political marketing into the mainstream, allowing campaigns to move past the agendas or inherent bias of media outlets. However, it also opened the proverbial Pandora’s Box of internet influence and echo chambers. Graham-Felsen begrudgingly admits that Trump’s 2016 campaign – which Forbes claimed was built on “message tailoring, sentiment manipulation, and machine learning” – “perfected” what Obama’s campaign set out to do in 2008. Trump’s 2016 campaign sought after and mobilized voters after an intensive online marketing campaign, using social media advertising to target those with similar views and bring them into the campaign’s fold, something that the 2008 Obama campaign revolutionized. The strategic move to sidestep traditional media was also built upon by the Trump campaign, and Trump’s Twitter antics were seen as transparent and eclectic – especially compared to the artificially produced and sanitized nature of typical presidential hopefuls – before they were seen as dangerous or offensive.  

“We all thought it was amazing,” said Graham-Felsen on social media in politics. “We only saw the positive sides of what the internet could do for politics. We saw some of the negative sides – there was tons of misinformation on Barack Obama back then, obviously the birth certificate thing was like the original ‘fake news’ – but we felt ultimately that the positive sides would outweigh the negative sides. The way that we gave people the ability to personally connect to the campaign and to feel like a part of a grassroots movement was a profound shift in American politics. It made people feel like they had a voice for the first time.”

Now, easy access to the internet and a lack of media literacy has created a dangerous precedent for online information. With social media allowing users the ability to curate what content they see, and social media algorithms perpetually sending more of that content to the user, stronger media literacy education becomes necessary.  In data collected by the nonprofit News Literacy Project, roughly 55% of K-12 students were “not even moderately confident in their ability to recognize false information online.” 

While “fake news” is not commonly a tactic used by political campaigns to garner support, it does contribute to political identity in a strong way. Partisan bias in news perception is wildly important in the social media age, as what gets shared around online is not based on truthful accuracy, but rather what someone believes personally. In a 2014 study, telephone survey data taken right after the 2008 election was analyzed to examine the real-world consequences of inaccurate political rumors. The study found that respondents were more likely to believe negative rumors about the presidential candidate from the opposing party, despite its accuracy. 

We saw this in 2008, with the Obama’s “Birther” conspiracy – the exact conspiracy that Graham-Felsen attempted to dispel. We also see it in the current presidential cycle, where passionate Trump supporters demonstrate in Boston’s streets with the belief that Joe Biden was a “Chinese agent” who won thanks to a fraudulent election. 

While it may not have been part of a political campaign’s plan to work these conspiracies into the public consciousness, it’s clear that a campaign will benefit from it, and the rabid nature of impassioned followers will be more valuable as marketing for a political candidate than a 15-second television ad or a flimsy sign in your neighbor’s yard ever will be. 

Using Format