The possibility Democrats will win back control of at least one chamber in November 2018 has transfixed the political world basically since the day Donald Trump won the presidency.
But it's not the only question these midterms can answer. Let's look at three digital unknowns in the countdown to November 6.
1. Will Democratic Digital Deliver?
Grassroots donors have poured money into the coffers of Democratic candidates across the country thanks in part to a robust digital fundraising infrastructure. Without services like ActBlue and the technology and skills employed by digital organizers up and down the ballot, Democrats would be seriously outgunned by their Republican opponents and their allies. Instead, many Democrats running for Congress will actually outspend the other side, a reversal of the typical state of affairs.
Not that Dems are putting much of the money raised online back into the medium that generated it. I'm hearing from folks in the field that just as in 2016, Republicans are spending significantly more on digital persuasion ads this cycle. Democratic campaigns have invested in acquisition ads designed to recruit new donors, but they're putting their persuasion dollars on TV. A last-minute burst of advertising could turn that situation around, but so far the big screen retains its stranglehold on Democratic media buyers.
Will late money find its way into online persuasion ads, since they can launch right up to Election Day, unlike print or TV? If campaign managers spend it on robocalls instead, I will cry.
Besides their dollars, Democratic activists are donating their clicks: their party's House and Senate candidates are seeing far more social media engagement than on the Republican side. Still, we have no way of knowing whether or not all that enthusiasm even has a chance to matter. With every election nationalized, most of the people viewing a Senate candidate's Facebook post may not even be eligible to vote for her.
The money will count the most, and perhaps in places we don't expect. As Nate Silver pointed out recently, much of the torrent of cash has flowed into districts and states where few Democrats have had the opportunity to compete financially in the recent past. A lot of districts: 60-odd Democratic congressional candidates raised over $1 million in the third quarter of this year alone.
This situation creates the opportunity for outlier events to happen, for instance, a wave of unlikely Democratic wins that pundits did not see coming. If it happens, Democrats can thank their donors, technologists and digital fundraisers for the win.
2. Is 2018 the Year of Peer-to-Peer Texting?
Peer-to-peer texting broke big as an organizing tool in 2016, and this year hundreds of campaigns are turning to tools like Hustle or VoterCircle to allow individual volunteers to connect with priority voters via their phones. Some of these technologies automate the process of sending individual texts to large numbers of people, while others try to connect activists' personal contacts and the voter file, aiming for friend-to-friend contact instead of cold calling.
We know that campaigns are using the tools, but will they actually matter? In particular, will texts from Democratic volunteers or phone calls from a friend move enough younger voters off the couch and into the voting booth? Also, will Republicans adopt the technology in enough numbers to narrow the peer-to-peer lead Democrats built in 2016? We probably won't learn much more on Election Day itself. But look for the vendors to tout their successes in the months afterward.
3. Will the Election Get Hacked?
Finally, do we face the prospect of another potentially hacked election this year? At least this time we know something in advance: the Department of Justice just indicted a Russian woman for running the finances of an organization waging an "information war" against the United States.
"Project Lakhta" paid for social media activity and digital advertising designed to disrupt the body politic by pounding on the raw nerves in our culture just as in 2016. Meanwhile, Facebook, Twitter and Google shut down hundreds of accounts on their properties propagandizing on behalf of Russia and Iran, and many campaigns, vendors and election systems remain vulnerable to phishing, hacking or even DDoS attacks.
Once again, will it matter? And, would we even know if it did? Too many potential scenarios would leave few conclusive digital fingerprints, and it's possible that an outside actor could change a vote tally or crash a crucial vendor's turnout toolset on Election Day without anyone being the wiser. Perhaps it’s even better from their point of view if we suspected it, but couldn't prove it, since a tainted election could set this country alight. Let’s hope the answer to this final question is a clear “no.”
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, the author of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-two-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.