1. We heard a lot about how Democrats had a tech advantage in 2012. Did they? And have Republicans narrowed the gap?
The Obama campaign had a technology advantage over the other side in 2012, but more importantly they had an advantage in terms of the people to make use of the technology, and the digital campaign tactics that are part of the package. It’s important to understand that Democrats and Republicans are trying to solve different problems. The Obama campaign didn’t build technology because it’s cool to do that. The campaign did what it did to service an unprecedented grass-roots field operation that was driven by the need to turn out people who needed to be engaged, registered and followed up with by volunteers. Since 2012, Republicans have spent as much time focused on voter ID laws to keep some people from voting as they have in building tech that will help them turn out their own voters.
2. What are campaigns doing differently technologically/digitally this election cycle compared to past years? How is communication different?
Campaigns are trying to consolidate the gains made in the presidential year when investment is so significant. Those huge campaigns move the ball up the field, and campaigns in the midterms have seen those advances become scalable.
On the technology front, more campaigns have more access to better technology. You don’t need to be a presidential campaign to have access to robust data for targeting, tools for sophisticated social media engagement, or Quick Donate contributions (where supporters can save their card payment information for future one-click gifts). Where campaigns have invested in the staff to use those tools in meaningful ways, they make a tangible difference. In some cases, campaigns have built on and evolved those tactics and technologies. In other cases, campaigns have used derivative tactics that can ring false with voters and supporters.
It’s hard to generalize, but it’s way more common to see a digital director, with a meaningful budget and a literal seat at the senior staff table than in previous cycles, but we're still seeing digital subservient to finance or communication directors, and the consequences of that in terms of poor programs.
Where a campaign invests in digital, especially in its hiring, it has an impact in the real world. It means that campaigns are putting out more content, raising more money from more people, and better connecting what happens online with their grass-roots campaigning. In some places. You can see that around debates — rapid response is as much about Twitter and video clips as it is about research bullet points.
3. Is it difficult to convince longtime strategists to invest more campaign cash in new digital communication and voter contact efforts?
It’s not as difficult to persuade smart campaign managers that being good at digital and technology is crucial to winning. Anyone paying attention to the 2012 cycle knows their budget would be years out of date if they didn't invest a good chunk of it in digital. That said, even a billion-dollar presidential campaign has to choose where to spend its money carefully. It is an ongoing debate whether it is smart to put more and more money into the diminishing returns of TV ads that people fast forward through on their DVR or whether to put money elsewhere. More campaigns are spending more online, and on field. We know that people trust the people they know more than what they see in the media and on TV. Campaigns can marry smart data with innovative tech, and meaningful campaign engagement with supporters, to reach key voters.
4. What are Democrats doing that Republicans are not and vice-versa?
The scale and sophistication of the Democratic efforts to train more and better digital staffers is far ahead of the GOP, and the gap will probably grow as OFA shifts resources to training. The number of smart people on the right seems to be growing, but a Democratic digital director has a bigger talent pool to choose from than their Republican counterpart. The talent pool and culture issue doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it is so fundamental to a program being successful (and to ensuring that digital is integral to the whole campaign, and integrated with other teams within the campaign.) It’s also relevant in thinking about how the 2016 candidates will or will not create cultures that attract talent, innovation and buy in.
5. What new advances in digital strategy will we see in the 2016 presidential campaign?
The next big thing is a load of little things.
On the tech front, we'll see more precision targeting based on a fuller picture of supporter or voter contact.
On the communications side, the ongoing diversification of platforms that campaigns can use to reach supporters and voters means that campaigns will need to be smart about their tone of voice and approach — you can’t say the same thing in a press release that you post on Tumblr. In Rand Paul, we’ll see the first presidential candidate on Snapchat — what a time to be alive.
Strategically, digital directors have to tackle the challenge of how e-mail fundraising goes on from the carnage of 2014. It is great that campaigns, especially on the left, are able to tap into the financial support of millions of people rather than a few old white guy millionaires, but the churn and burn “ALL HOPE IS LOST” e-mail approach likely has a time limit on its usefulness. In 2008, the Obama campaign faced a key moment when it had to choose between a grass-roots, respectful approach to its list and an ATM approach (going back to the well until it’s dry). It chose the former, but not all campaigns in 2016 will go the same way — and what we’ve seen from the midterms isn’t very encouraging.
Finally, campaign managers will have to decide where digital sits. Over 15 years, we’ve gone from “webmaster” to “e-campaigns manager” to “digital director,” with each change in title signifying the increasingly central role that a smart online strategy plays in a campaign. The next leap is for a campaign to, by default, to make digital an integral part of all aspects of a campaign.