Ten Big Trends in Digital Politics & Advocacy

How to use digital tools to change the world and win elections

Adapted from Chapter Three of How to Use the Internet to Change the World — and Win Elections. Download your copy today. This piece is also published on Medium.com.

Most of this book will dive deeply into the tools and tactics of digital politics and advocacy. But first, let’s look at ten big trends shaping the ways we use technology to elect candidates, mobilize the public and change government policy.

1. Voters are Hard to Reach

The voters are hiding from us: traditional American political advertising practices can’t handle a world in which voters abandon broadcast media in favor of Netflix, Hulu, Spotify and YouTube. The death of land lines and the ubiquity of cell phones complicate phone-banking, robocalling and polling. As far back as 2012, the Obama campaign could only find phone numbers for about half of the voters aged 18-30 on its target list, and many had moved so often that their physical addresses were dead as well.

No matter how good your data model is, it won’t help if you can’t actually reach the people you need to. Fortunately for those of us trying to change the world or win elections, digital options can begin to fill the gap.

2. Data-Driven Voter Targeting

Campaigns can now employ a wide array of digital targeting techniques to contact defined groups of voters via “addressable” communications channels. Digital ads, for example, can be targeted via a voter file to reach specific households with messages designed just for them. Powerful, assuming that your voter model is correct in the first place. This kind of precision is beginning to enter the TV world as well.

Similarly, a Facebook Custom Audience or a targeted Promoted Tweet can help you reach individual people with messages optimized to move them. Your own email list constitutes a target in waiting, since you can break it into specific segments based on supporters’ giving history, past participation in online actions, location or social media activity.

2016 brought a new option to politics: the Trump campaign built an automated, data-driven Facebook advertising machine to connect with many different slices of the electorate around issues those particular people cared about. At times, Trump’s team ran tens of thousands of ad variants each day! The result? Millions of people more motivated to vote for him, $240 million in donations and a small-dollar donor email list that the Republican National Committee was still tapping for cash in 2018.

Key to all of these is data, of course. Also key? Money. The more, the better: online ads aren’t free. Democrats, take heed! Republicans vastly outspent Democratic House candidates on digital ads in 2016. Will Dems fall behind again in 2018?

3. People-Powered Politics

But we have an alternate model for political organizing: people-powered politics. This kind of campaign treats supporters as an active part of the process and a major channel for voter outreach. Voters become people with whom we have a conversation, not just passive receptacles for our advertising.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders’s volunteers famously helped his campaign with everything from technology to field organizing, donating money along the way and bringing him closer to the Democratic nomination than almost anyone expected. Meanwhile, Trump supporters did their best to retweet the future president to the White House (with a little help from the Russians), and grassroots donors recruited via Facebook basically paid for the last two months of his campaign. Since the inauguration, the Trump Resistance has self-organized to a remarkable degree, and in 2018, we should expect its members to go all-in on persuading their friends, family and neighbors to vote against Trump’s agenda, alongside a host of Democratic and progressive organizations.

Money, People or Both?

The fact that you CAN buy targeted ads in bulk means that they become a button you can push: insert the check and the ads pop out. Will they also encourage a manipulative mindset, a return to the attitudes of the era when broadcast TV advertising dominated politics? The ease of targeted digital ads could encourage political professionals to treat the voters like clay to be shaped — as bystanders, not actors themselves.

My guess: we’ll see a mix of the two strategies, often in the same campaign. Done right, online ads and field organizing work together, reaching voters with consistent messaging across many points of contact. Voters not reachable digitally may be easier to find in person — or vice versa. But I also suspect that we’ll continue to see a tension between ad-targeters and those with a grassroots mindsets…particularly when it comes time to allocate campaign budgets. Note that Bernie Sanders may have been famous for his people-powered campaign in 2016, but his team also spent heavily on digital ads.

4. The Trump Resistance

Speaking of the Trump Resistance, the movement to oppose the president’s agenda is encouraging activists and entrepreneurs to create their own mobilizing tools. As I put it early in 2018:

Finally, let's not forget the 2018 tech that we can’t predict because it hasn't been invented yet. Perhaps Trump's most striking "achievement" has been his inspiration of a mass movement against him and his agenda, which has already borne fruit in upset Democratic victories in special elections from Alabama to Oklahoma.

Also ripening on the vine? Tech innovations large and small, enabling grassroots political organizing across the country. Technology doesn't have to be new to be newly useful in politics, either: the explosion of Indivisible groups in communities large and small proves the power of Google Doc activism. At the higher end, companies like the ones championed by Higher Ground Labs hope to revolutionize the way campaigns do the work of reaching out to voters.

Democrats have no monopoly on innovation, of course, and Republicans are building new small-dollar online donor networks and field programs to try to hold on to governorships and congressional seats in November. But the energy seems to be on the left this time around, and it's not limited to party-driven initiatives.

Some will see the lack of central leadership in the Resistance as a fatal flaw, but with no big trees to block the light, a thousand green sprigs are thriving. Most local activists started with little more than determination, but they're learning fast about the tools, technologies and tactics that facilitate change. Who knows what they'll be teaching the professional political class a year from now?

We shall see!

5. If You’re Not Mobile, You’re Not Online

Mobile phones have been the “next big thing” since I started Epolitics.com back in 2006. But they’re “next” no longer — in 2018, mobile devices are a real and significant factor in how we conduct political outreach online.

They’ve been a player in field organizing for years, but as we’ll see throughout this book, mobile phones and tablets now shape the ways people view our websites, read our emails, encounter our ads, consume our social content and act on our fundraising appeals. Campaigners and activists who don’t take mobile seriously risk missing huge segments of the electorate — it’s that simple.

6. Making Sense of Social Media

Ah, social media…why do you vex us so? Facebook seems to reach into every household in America, yet it’s a troubling tool for politics. In 2018, campaigns and advocates have to deal with the fallout from Russian election-hacking and Cambridge Analytics data-scraping, including new disclosure and verification requirements. More fundamentally, political communicators face the same problem as every other Facebook page owner: most of our followers will never see our content unless we pay for the privilege. In practice, campaigns and advocacy organizations will rely on a mix of engaging content, active supporters and paid promotion to get their messages in front of the right voters.

Meanwhile, a few campaigns may attempt to emulate the Trump campaign’s industrial-scale, data-driven Facebook outreach program, hoping that the rules for political ads don’t change significantly enough to crimp their operations before Election Day. Campaigns of all sizes will be active on Twitter, taking advantage of new opportunities to post longer messages and the platform’s prominence in the age of Trump to reach reporters, activists and the public at large. What about SnapChat and Instagram? Look for campaigns and organizations to experiment with just about any digital tool you can think of, but Facebook and Twitter will surely dominate the average social outreach strategy.

7. Online Advertising for the Masses

Any online communicator can buy Facebook ads or Promoted Tweets, an example of how online advertising has democratized over the past two decades. Self-serve advertising portals let small businesses, tiny nonprofits and local candidates set up a basic advertising campaign in a few minutes. Big campaigns may still work through a Facebook rep or an ad agency to place ads in large numbers, but the masses are now in on the game.

Around 2012, the self-serve model began to move into the world of digital video ads and banner ads, and several political ad vendors now offer platforms for campaigns to buy their own voter-file-targeted online ads in bulk. These self-serve ad portals let small campaigns reach voters with the same targeting tools as the big boys, with minimum buys in the hundreds rather than tens of thousands of dollars.

The result? A flurry of online advertising in state and local races, particularly state legislative races. As we’ll see in this book, targeted advertising can be a great fit for many campaigns, with important benefits for those in convoluted districts or crowded media markets. It’s a great example of a longer-running trend: the the down-ballot evolution of technologies originally designed for national-level campaigns.

8. Bots, Trolls, Hacks and Fakes

If we had any illusions about Bad Hombres in U.S. politics, 2016 should have broken them. Russian hackers and bot-nets did their best to heighten the discord in our politics, dancing on the raw nerves in our culture to pit group against group, sometimes literally. After this experience, campaign cybersecurity cannot be an afterthought! Every campaign, activist organization and individual advocate needs to think about basic measures like secure passwords, two-factor authentication and virtual private networking apps. Also take a look at Google’s cybersecurity tools designed specifically for campaigns, journalists and interest groups.

Likewise, any candidate can be on the receiving end of lies spread online, amplified by a bot-net or your crazy uncle, and campaigns should plan for rapid response against a digital smear. Pro tip: mobilize your supporters to speak on your behalf, and be sure not to repeat the lies as you fight them. Looking ahead, if you thought fake news and Facebook data breaches were bad, wait until fake video becomes commonplace.

9. Outside Actors

Of course, plenty of “legitimate” outside groups will also try to influence the elections, including SuperPACs and 501(c)4s. Most Independent Expenditure groups have poured the bulk of their money into TV in the past, but look for many outside groups to invest heavily in digital advertising in 2018 and beyond. For instance, note the
the integrated online/offline campaign waged by a SuperPAC that helped beat David Vitter and put a Democrat in the Louisiana governor’s mansion late in 2015. Or, look at the targeted digital ads flying during Congressional special elections and the Great Obamacare Battle of 2017. Also watch the work of the impressive array of data-driven grassroots organizations built by the Koch apparatus and ready to go to work for chosen campaigns. Finally, liberal activist communities like Daily Kos and many thousands of individual small-dollar donors have fueled insurgent Democratic campaigns and organizations, at times raising hundreds of thousands of dollars almost overnight.

10. Integrate or Die

In 2018, a campaign can’t just throw things at the wall — the parts need to work together. For example, a single ad campaign might tie data from mobile phones, desktop computers and TV together to reach specific voters regardless of which screen they’re looking at. This kind of data-driven, cross-channel targeting will help campaigns catch the right people with the right content at the right moment, whether they’re watching TV or listening to Pandora.

Another example of data changing the way we buy ads: “audience-based” TV advertising, which the Obama 2012 campaign pioneered in the political space. Rather than buying space on a particular channel or show, this tactic matches data models of targeted voters with TV cable set-top box data and demographic information to reach exact segments of the electorate at the most cost-effective times.

Bonus takeaway: voter contact is becoming less about targeting channels and more about targeting people.

Data integration isn’t sexy — that is, unless you’re really into mingling ones and zeroes. But it’s a secret hero of digital politics: the tools have powerful potential, but all the data in the world won’t help you if you can’t organize it, connect it and put it to work.

Think of all the data sources campaigns can access: fundraising lists, voter files, grassroots contacts, commercial information, demographic information and much more. Making all those pieces talk to each other is a major task, one that even a campaign as data-driven as Obama’s couldn’t solve perfectly. The most effective data-driven campaigns will be ones that 1) understand the data they have or can have, 2) connect different data “silos” to create an integrated system, and 3) use that data to make better decisions about how, what and when to communicate with voters. Ideally, the system will also incorporate feedback loops, so that information gathered via one source can affect the rest. If someone signs up on the email list from a given neighborhood, the local field organizer should know about it!

Of course, connected data brings its own problems, as the entire American political world got to see at on a Democratic presidential debate in December, 2015. A data breach gives Sanders staffers access Clinton campaign data? A public apology on national TV? Data integration had truly arrived: it caused a scandal.

Everything You Just Read is Wrong

Well, maybe it’s not ALL wrong, but plenty will happen in 2018 and beyond that we can’t predict. Some trends that look significant now may not play out that way in the end, and strategies that work well one month can yield eyeball-melting failure the next. That’s what keeps this business fun! We’ll revisit these trends on Epolitics.com regularly in the months to come.

Adapted from Chapter Three of How to Use the Internet to Change the World — and Win Elections. Download your copy today.

Written by
Colin Delany
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