The 2020 campaign has almost a year yet to go, but this cycle has already broken plenty of assumptions about how online politics, and politics in general, is done. Let's look at some of the new rules on the digital playing field.
5. Campaigns are lifting the curtain
The presidential campaigns have experimented wildly in their email fundraising programs, with contests, giveaways and merchandise offers competing for our inbox attention. Billionaire tears, anyone? But I've seen one approach this year more than I remember in the past: letting supporters in on campaign strategy.
Fundraising pros have long understood that donors are often more likely to give if they know where their money is going, but many of the 2020 campaigns have sent long emails explaining their strategies in detail.
For example, since Kamala Harris shifted her focus almost entirely on Iowa, her team has sent a series of messages explaining why she made that decision and how it changes her campaign's priorities.
The idea isn't new — both of Obama's campaigns were notably open with supporters. But this cycle campaigns seem to have embraced it more enthusiastically. Outside groups are making similar moves: from Indivisible to the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, organizations on the left seem eager to provide details on why they need my money, not just how much they need to raise and how terrible the other guys are.
In the process, many have admitted weakness, usually a political no-no. Cory Booker and Julian Castro made news when they each appealed to donors to keep them in the race by hitting a fundraising milestone.
But Harris, Elizabeth Warren, the DNC, the DSCC and others have also let me know that they're falling short of their goals and what they won’t be able to do because of it. One big reason? Activists expect to be a part of the process, not just passive givers of cash.
4. Voters are in on the game
Campaigns are used to PACs and other official "outside" groups intervening in races, but now individual citizens are getting in on the action. Adriel Hampton pulled a stunt when he filed his candidacy for California governor just to run lying Facebook ads.
Other individual actors will surely be serious when they pay to influence their neighbors in 2020. If Tom Steyer can do it, why can't they? With easy self-service ad platforms proliferating, even small nonprofits can play in this game, as long as they stick to issues and steer clear of direct endorsements.
Other activists won't play by the rules. American meme-creators will far outnumber any foreign agents, as they did in 2016, and many will happily take advantage of algorithms that favor the extreme. Who's behind that new "local news" site in your state? It may be hard to find out.
We've also already seen evidence of bot-nets in domestic political quarrels, including in strikingly trivial cases. On a more consequential front, Tim Chambers of the Dewey Square Group noted to me that his team has evidence from "multiple elections across multiple states" of groups creating "home-grown bot networks" to "make hundreds of people appear to have the social reach of tens of thousands." All fun and games, until disinformation makes someone lose an election.
Returning to the positive, smart campaigns are embracing the digital power of supporter passion. Warren may have perfected the selfie line, but even Joe Biden has learned to pose for photos destined for social media. It's all part of building enthusiasm long before anyone goes to the polls.
3. Voter mobilization never stops
American presidential campaigns have long launched months or years earlier than most of their counterparts overseas. Now, at this point in our political history, the fight never really ends. Trump started holding 2020 rallies soon after he moved into the White House, collecting data about supporters along the way.
Meanwhile, Democrats in states like Wisconsin are knocking on doors and talking to voters a full year before they'll cast a general-election ballot.
Not surprisingly, turnout jumped in 2018 over previous off-year elections, and voters showed up in droves in 2019's off-off-year contests. Even the kids are voting. For once, the youth vote may actually make the kind of difference Democrats often hope for but rarely see. How can you tell? Republicans keep trying to make it harder for them to cast a ballot.
2. Volume, volume, volume
Everything about the 2020 election looks to be big, from turnout to fundraising to ad budgets. Trump's huge money hauls are truly impressive, and his campaign may well end up with more cash than they can spend efficiently. But Democrats in Trump-supporting districts are building the kind of bank balances that scare off opponents, and grassroots Democratic donors have even raised millions for a challenger to Susan Collins yet to be determined.
Those grassroots donors keep changing the rules in other ways. While centrist candidates like Biden or Booker struggle to raise money, "radicals" like Warren and Bernie Sanders, and "outsiders" like Pete Buttigieg stack up cash by the millions every month. Note to Biden: those private jets aren't exactly helping the bottom line.
Grassroots Democrats are giving so much money (and in some cases, giving so often) that they can help out candidates they hope won't win. Donations no longer (always) equal endorsements, at least on the left.
In the end, the giving is really benefiting TV stations, cable channels and digital ad providers, particularly those that excel at helping campaigns raise even more money. As a country, we've already seen twice as many TV ads as we had at this point four years ago, in some cases sparking incumbents to beg for help. Meanwhile, Trump's reprising his big 2016 Facebook ad buys, vastly outspending every Democrat but Steyer, who still lags behind. If Mike Bloomberg really does get into the race, expect the advertising totals to skyrocket. Grassroots vs. the billionaires: don't say I didn't warn you.
1. Amateurism still doesn’t impress, and that won’t change
Some digital rules are eternal, though. Adding people to your email list without their consent? Your messages are likely to end up in spam filters, just as Biden and Buttigieg's are landing in mine. And of course, buy those domain names before you need them, lest the other guy squat on the territory to which you (should have) laid claim.
I hate to pick on Biden again, but seriously: hashtag hijacks you can't stop, but who thought it was a good idea to announce a Latino outreach initiative without buying the obvious URL?
Deval Patrick has the excuse of jumping into the race late. Still, it doesn't look great to have your most obvious website name, DevalPatrick.com, out there that his campaign doesn't directly control. Unavoidable or not, it smacks of amateurism, a trait that rarely impresses donors. That's one rule unlikely to change anytime soon.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the 2019 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-three-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com