Throughout our history, presidential elections continue to help introduce new and emerging technologies, demonstrating their application and setting the table for their broader commercialization.

This is a black-and-white photograph of Walter Cronkite listening as Dr. J. Presper Eckert describes the functions of the UNIVAC I computer he helped develop in the 1950s.
Walter Cronkite (right) listens as Dr. J. Presper Eckert (center) describes the functions of the UNIVAC I computer he helped develop in the 1950s. (AP)

In fact, today’s presidential election marks the 60th anniversary of the use of computers to predict results. While polling–or even actual vote counts–may be questioned by some, those challenges are largely based on human interference, both intentional and unintentional. As long as data input is pure, the reliable precision and accuracy of computer analysis output is generally unquestioned–and rightly so. As the following story suggests, computer scientists have earned the vote of confidence. During the first presidential election broadcast nationwide on television in 1952, Remington Rand’s UNIVAC computer was debuted to help predict the election results. NPR’s Morning Edition shared the amazing story in “The Night a Computer Predicted the Next President,” about this watershed moment for the infant computer sciences industry, news and television, and presidential politics.

Although largely treated as a gimmick by CBS’ coverage—and no doubt seen as a way to add further bells and whistles to its coverage—UNIVAC predicted an Eisenhower landslide within one percentage point. Traditional pollsters had predicted Stevenson. Even UNIVAC’s programmers’ confidence in their technology was momentarily shaken by the startling analysis.

This is a photograph of a printout of the UNIVAC prediction of the 1952 presidential election.
A printout of the UNIVAC prediction of the 1952 presidential election


But the relationship between emerging technology and presidential elections dates much further back than the dramatic debut of computers in 1952. More than a century before, Samuel Morse famously demonstrated the impact of the telegraph at the 1844 Democratic Convention–back when conventions actually resulted in the selection of a candidate and created real news.
The original telegraph receiver, used in Baltimore for the receipt of the first telegraph message, May 24, 1844. (Cornell University College of Engineering)

In 1843, Morse had secured funding from Congress for an electromagnetic telephone line that connected Washington, D.C., to Baltimore. When the Democrats held their convention in Baltimore a year later, Morse successfully utilized the line to inform members of Congress that the Democrats had in fact nominated James Polk a “compromise candidate.” Sharing the unexpected news and other updates of the convention was a powerful demonstration of the impact of technology. It set the stage for subsequent budgetary support and the emergence of the telegraph as a world-changing communications technology.

This is a photograph of John King using CNN’s touch screen 'magic board' at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.
King uses CNN’s touch screen “magic board” at the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. (AP)

Recent history has not witnessed such dramatic debuts of world-changing technology, but the elections continue to be a showcase for new gadgetry that later becomes mainstream. Take, for instance, in 2008 when CNN and John King got attention for their use of a giant touchscreen, driven by a powerful database, to show election results. This application was both novel and a leap forward for using this technology as a media tool. Today touchscreens, large and small, are much more prolific.

And while use of social media and the Internet aren’t considered new breakthrough computing technologies now as they were in recent years, their increased use has certainly given candidates another solid platform through which they can reach voters, especially those in younger demographics. MDG Advertising created an infographic showing just how critical these communications platforms are in the 2012 election, when just eight years earlier they were virtually (or wholly) unused. Only after the 2008 election, with President Obama’s well-documented and oft-lauded use of social media to reach voters, was social media recognized as a valuable communications tool and critical method to distribute messaging, raise money, organize groups, engage audiences and encourage voter turnout.

What all these stories remind us is that presidential elections not only change the political, social, and economic landscape of this country, but also greatly impact how we apply and adopt new and emerging technologies.

By Jason Dressel

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