Big Trends in Digital Politics & Advocacy [Part One]

Touching the Hand of Bot

Sometimes digital politics practitioners are so close to the brushstrokes that we can miss the sweep of the full painting. What are the trends shaping our field? Let’s look at four of the big ones below, with five more in the next installment. This article is an excerpt from Chapter Four of the 2020 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections”. Pick up your copy right here or on Amazon (for Kindle). Eighteen chapters and 138 pages of digital politics excellence!

For a longer-term examination of the big trends affecting our work online, BTW, check out my two-part series looking at the past and future of digital politics and organizing, published earlier this year by Campaigns & Elections.

1. The Public is Fired Up

The biggest trend in politics is so vast we often miss it for the trees: millions of people are fed up and fired up. Many of them are also ready to step up and take responsibility for creating the change they want to see in the world. Racial-justice protests have filled American streets in 2020, sparked by cellphone videos and mobilized by digital tools, but they’re firmly embedded in a new tradition of self-organizing. As I wrote late in 2018,

Think of the Parkland students crossing the country to work for gun control, or the thousands of Indivisible chapters that have sprung up spontaneously in all fifty states, or the Democratic women organizing in secret in deep Red America. The right gets in on the action sometimes, as in that border-wall crowdfunding campaign, but the real passion has been on the Democrats' side since Trump went to the White House. If I were running for president, one of my priorities would be to create a system to harness it.

Not just in the United States, either, since protesters have challenged political authority from Hong Kong to Sudan in the past few years. The trick for campaigns and activists is to understand this enthusiasm and channel it toward positive ends. Crucially, this kind of people-powered politics treats supporters as an active part of the process and a major outreach channel in themselves. Voters are people with whom we have a conversation — they’re 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 their grassroots donations basically paid for the last two months of his campaign. Since Trump’s inauguration, left-leaning activists in the “Resistance” have self-organized to a remarkable degree. In 2020, with protests against police violence filling our streets despite a pandemic, we should expect activists to continue going all-in on persuading their friends, family and neighbors to vote against Trump’s agenda, helped by host of Democratic and progressive organizations. Their chief rivals? The members of Trump’s “base”, whose passions he stokes daily via tweet.

2. Data-Driven Voter Targeting

Despite the intensity of this new wave of activists, many voters are still hiding from political campaigns. Traditional American political advertising practices can’t always 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. Fortunately for those of us trying to change the world or win elections, digital options can begin to fill the gap.

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 level of precision is beginning to enter the TV world as well.

Similarly, a Facebook Custom Audience can help you reach individual people with messages optimized to move them. As Trump found in 2016, Facebook’s ability to “retarget” people who interact with specific content or who visit your website also provide ways to convert someone’s passing interest into a durable connection. 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 adertising 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. By 2019, that list had already generated many millions for the President and his party, and in 2020, it promises to fund a gold-plated reelection campaign.

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 the 2020 cycle?

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.

3. Grassroots Tech

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 three years ago:

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, online donation hubs 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?

Many voter-contact technologies sparked by a desire to beat Trump have already become part of the standard Democratic campaign toolkit, and we can expect even more to emerge between now and Election Day 2020. In particular, check out the Field Organizing chapter for more about cutting-edge relational organizing tools.

4. 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 2020, campaigns and advocates have to deal with the fallout from ongoing data-breaches, Russian election-hacking, Cambridge Analytics data-scraping, including new disclosure and verification requirements, and the recent pressure to boycott the platform. 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. Smart campaigns will also spot opportunities to take advantage of spontaneous social enthusiasm. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign didn’t create those now-legendary selfie lines out of the blue — they capitalized on a practice her passionate supporters started themselves.

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. Livestreaming has also become de rigueur for 2020 presidential campaigns, in part because of the example set by Beto O’Rourke’s share-tastic 2018 Senate race in Texas. What about SnapChat, TikTok 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.

Can’t get enough of the future? Read part two of this series, or pick up your copy of the book today!

Written by
Colin Delany
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