10 things that mattered in 2012

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From the influence of Super PACs to the advent of mobile donations, campaigns changed in some important ways this cycle.


1) The devil was in the demographics…: Most of the post-election buzz explaining why Mitt Romney lost has focused on the GOP’s inability to adapt to the nation’s changing demographics. Gone are the days of the George W. Bush coalition. White evangelicals aren’t enough to win anymore, and even when they were a force, Bush still had to win about 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004.

Four years ago, McCain only landed 31 percent of the Hispanic vote, and Romney came in with a meager 27 percent of the Hispanic vote Tuesday. Looking ahead to 2016, that’s not a good sign for the GOP, especially when Hispanics voted in record numbers this election.

2) …and also in the data: The Obama campaign played with analytics during the 2008 election, particularly with list segmenting for fundraising emails. But this go-around it was hiring data-miners in January. The primary aim was integrating voter lists compiled by the various arms of the campaign into a single megafile that could be segmented, be tested and provide feedback on campaign endeavors such as fundraising and GOTV work. Never before has data analytics been this involved in the functioning of a campaign.

3) “Off the grid” voters rose:  A study performed by Targeted Victory and  SAY Media once in May 2011, and again in June 2012, found that some 30 percent of likely voters said they hadn’t watched live TV in the past week. Over that same time span, smartphone ownership increased from 37 to 52 percent among likely voters, and the likelihood of them watching TV on their computer rose from 40 to 44 percent.

The increasing number of off the grid voters makes them harder to reach through traditional means—home phones, broadcast and cable TV. Democratic targeting guru Hal Malchow calls it the black hole in political advertising. While spending on digital rose for both presidential campaigns, reaching the right mix of voters is one of the greatest challenges still looming for strategists.  

4) Emails got personal: Daily Show host John Stewart lampooned Team Obama’s bro-mails, but the fact the campaign kept using them was a testament to their success. With some suggesting email is in decline and social media is slowly taking its place, people have grown used to more casual online conversation, and campaign fundraising emails have changed to reflect that. Featuring more down-to-earth subject lines, informal speech and often a hook—like dinner with the president—emails are adapting and finding ways to stay persuasive.

5) Real online engagement: Why talk at a potential supporter when you can converse with them? Both presidential campaigns took to Facebook and Twitter to engage voters, identify their most loyal supporters and convince them to donate time or money. The asks were more numerous, smarter and highly targeted than ever before. Social sharing and hash tags were means of starting a conversation, and by encouraging shares and retweets campaigns saw messages reach far and wide. Next to face-to-face interactions with voters, social media is becoming one of the best ways to reach voters and take offline conversations online and vice versa.

6) Record ad spending: As expected, ad spending again reached new levels this election cycle. The presidential campaigns and supporting issue groups spent $980 million on TV ads this election cycle, according to an estimate from SMG-Delta. All of the spending drowned out some down ballot candidates, who were forced to fight for airtime and attention through all the noise.

On the presidential level, Republican issue groups spent big, but to not much avail for Romney. According to SMG-Delta, 11 major Super PACs spent for Romney, while just 3 spent to support President Obama.

7) Mobile donations: The Federal Election Commission voted in June to allow political committees to raise money via text message. There were some bumps along the way in implementing text-to-donate, but once mobile carriers were on board the presidential campaigns were the first to take advantage of the new contribution medium. Aimed at generating large quantities of small donations, text contributions are sure to figure into campaign fundraising even more prominently next cycle—with AT&T and Verizon exploring ways to keep most of the donation intact.

8) Mobile apps: This is really the story for next cycle, but this year paved the way for more widespread implementation of mobile apps. While many smaller campaigns might still be wise to spend their digital dollars elsewhere, the Romney-Ryan and Obama for America apps successfully generated buzz while sending push notifications to supporters reminding them of events, soliciting donations and encouraging them to vote.

The Obama app also served as an organizing tool that helped supporters find easy, local ways to volunteer. Additionally, Election Protection developed an app to instruct voters as to their polling location and prevent voter suppression, and the ORCA Project allowed the Romney campaign to poll watch on Election Day—informing GOTV teams who on their lists had already voted.

9) Mobile card readers: A second mode of mobile contributing allowed the presidential campaigns to accept contributions at events with the swipe of a credit card. The new go-to for small dollar fundraising in the field, both campaigns supplied staffers with Square’s mobile card reader in their door-to-door operations. Square has worked to integrate their hardware with campaign software, as well as extend use down the ballot, and, with near field communication a few years away from catching on, it’ll likely be popular for several election cycles to come.

10) Super PACs saw opportunity down the ballot: From state legislative races to those on the county level—Super PACs found they could have more of an impact the further down the ballot they went. Tens of thousands of dollars poured into some county commissioner and mayoral races—money that went a long way when an opponent, bereft of a Super PAC backer, lacked the funds to match. Some Super PACs, like the Durham Partnership for Progress, not-so-secretly backed candidates who favored their funder’s development interests.

Follow @DaveNyczepir

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