The Digital Campaigns Project: Preserving State Politics in a Nationalized Political Environment

March 8th, 2023

by Joshua Meyer-Gutbrod

Logo for the Digital Campaigns Project

In their effort to justify the Constitution, the Federalists went to great pains to stress the continued importance of the states with Madison writing in Federalist #46, “The most natural attachment of the people will be to the governments of their respective States.” This emphasis on local politics over national concerns was echoed by Speaker Tip O’Neill when he regularly reiterated that “all politics is local” throughout the 1980’s. However, fast forward to our modern era and the emphasis on local politics seems to have significantly faded. Literature in political science has shown that citizens increasingly see the world through the duality of Republican and Democratic priorities, and this national focus is echoed by a nationalized media that has grown as local news coverage has faded across the map. In spite of growing polarization and emphasis on national politics, the states retain tremendous power in terms of policy implementation, retain the unique ties to their constituencies through representation in state government, and even within political parties, illustrate the immense variation in policy priorities and implementation that is a product of catering to their unique circumstances.

The contrast between public attention and the potential impact of state politics has prompted a renewed focus on state local politics with an emphasis on the significant variation in local political traditions, rhetoric, and goals. However, both public accountability and scholarly investigation into this dynamic has been hampered by a lack of data, specifically regarding candidate engagement with issues and rhetoric. News coverage of state-level candidates is sporadic at best and little work is done to establish accountability across elections. Out of this lack of data, the idea for the Digital Campaigns Project was born. At the national level, campaign websites have been regularly archived by both the Library of Congress but also existing crawling criteria used by the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, facilitating access to historical candidate websites for both citizens and researchers. However, state legislative campaign websites frequently fail to reach the traffic thresholds for public crawling and systematic collections of website lists are rare. The Digital Campaigns Project sought to remedy this by systematically searching for and archiving state legislative campaign websites with the dual goal of facilitating citizen access and expanding potential research into partisan and political rhetoric at the state level.

Digital Campaigns Project homepage

Digital Campaigns Project homepage

Finding Websites

The Digital Campaigns Project (DCP) began its public archive with the 2018 general election and has archived websites in all major election years since. In addition, the DCP began archiving primary candidates during the 2022 election season. A team of undergraduate research assistants searched for candidate websites each year using fixed terms within the google search engine, as well as searching profiles and official Facebook pages. The search parameters identified more than 6000 websites in 2018 and 2020, and more than 9000 websites in 2022 with the inclusion of primary candidates. Searches include not only Democratic and Republican candidates but all third-party and independent candidates as well for all states with elections. The effort to identify these websites by the team has been herculean and I have truly appreciated the effort of my undergraduate research assistants. We plan to continue this project into the future, expanding into off-year elections. The research effort has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of South Carolina College of Arts and Sciences, and the University of South Carolina Honors College

Issue Ownership chart developed by Joshua Meyer-Gutbrod

Campaign Language and State Partisan Rhetoric for Issue Ownership by Region

Public Accessibility

One of the core goals of this project was to facilitate access to historical candidate websites to citizens seeking to understand shifting candidate positions and to hold candidates accountable for changes. Since 2018, we have partnered with the team at Archive-It to create a public repository of the data accessible both through Archive-It and through our own website. To facilitate citizen access to the data, in addition to Archive-It’s latent text search support, we have developed an expansive metadata list including candidate name, party, state, and census markers for district. We are working to develop a searchable map for future access through our own website. Our hope is that citizens and news agencies alike make use of these historical archives to not only understand the historical shifts among candidates within their districts and states but to hold those candidates accountable for their prior claims.

Ideology Score chart developed by Joshua Meyer-Gutbrod

Individual Candidates’ Ideology Score developed by Joshua Meyer-Gutbrod

Research Potential

From a research perspective, both the text and image data stored through these archives provides a unique, expansive, and holistic look at state political rhetoric, which has historically been understudied due to the lack of availability of similar data. I am currently developing both ideology and nationalization scores using text analysis to compare state-level candidates with national party platforms and national candidates. We are also developing machine learning methods to detect statements by issue arena to explore the variation in issue priorities across the states. Finally, students are pursuing guided research projects examining negativity in campaigns, the impact of candidate gender on language use, and specific explorations regarding the rhetoric of opioids, poverty, Black Lives Matter protests, and more. We hope to expand beyond text analysis into examining both images and in-linking across websites, and to continue the archival work into the future.

Dr. Joshua Meyer-Gutbrod is currently teaching faculty at the University of South Carolina, Department of Political Science and founder of the Digital Campaigns Project (DCP). Previously he was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow. He received his PhD from Cornell University.