Democratic practitioners are still parsing the 2018 midterm results and many believe despite the emphatic House win, their side’s digital strategy needs to evolve.
The call for greater investment went out even before the cycle ended, and in the wake of reclaiming the speaker’s gavel some on the left have continued the push. “It’s something we’ve got to get on top of going into 2020,” Higher Ground Labs Betsy Hoover told Roll Call last month.
The final tally for digital ad spending for 2018 is still being tabulated by some analysts — early estimates have it around $950 million. But it was clear even before polls closed last Election Day that Republican campaigns had gone heavier with their online marketing investment. Now, some practitioners on the left are looking for changes beyond the budget, instead arguing a cultural shift is still necessary for 2019 with an eye on 2020.
In 2018, digital “was still an afterthought — a stepchild,” said Jessica Alter, founder of Tech for Campaigns, a non-profit group that consults for and provides, in some cases, gratis digital services to Democratic campaigns. “What we’re really trying to change is mindsets and that’s not an easy thing to change.”
Alter noted while some high-profile Democrats, like Beto O’Rourke, invested heavily in digital in 2018 (although the failed Texas Senate candidate still spent some two-thirds of his some $30 million ad budget on broadcast TV) below that level there’s still a lack of buy-in. “I think you’ll see a big difference as you go to the not-talked-about-everyday races. And at the end of the day, that’s actually what matters,” she recently told C&E.
Alter continued: “We’re seeing what I would call big strides in digital and adoption from Democrats, but it’s certainly not from a spend standpoint, or a how-it’s-used standpoint. There’s still work to do.”
One area where Democratic practitioners see their side staying the course is on data and analytics. Last cycle, Democratic races saw more investment in data infrastructure from the start of the cycle until it wrapped, some data consultants said.
In some cases, models that were put together for the DGA and DCCC were effectively channeled to races that were “off the radar,” according to David Radloff, a partner at Clarity Campaign Labs, a Democratic data and analytics firm. “We’re getting the usage as far down the ballot as possible.”
He added: “We did see the best use of analytics [in 2018]. You can really be happy with the progress and know that there’s always more than can be done on the issue.”
Oklahoma Rep. Kendra Horn’s (D) campaign team was on the receiving end of analytics packages early on, which assisted with persuasion communications, message and backlash monitoring. Radloff credited that data infrastructure with helping propel her to 1-percent victory in November after Oklahoma’s 5th district had gone GOP by more than 20 points the last three cycles.
Analytics can also help set up “realistic win scenarios,” Radloff said
The biggest challenge some now see on the horizon is staffing.
“The most limiting factor on Democrats’ ability to compete on data is technical training. In many areas, key technology challenges are about usability and integration, rather than cutting-edge sophistication,” Hoover’s group, Higher Ground, said in an end-of-the-year report.
In other words, while the analytics and data packages might be getting shared more consistently with down-ballot campaigns, whether those teams have the ability to use them effectively is another matter.
The industry landscape analysis noted that “consistent salary” was a limiting factor when it came to retaining high-quality talent.
“After a campaign ends, many skilled staffers move out of politics in search of regular pay. While funding for long-term party or PAC roles could help with talent retention while benefiting party infrastructure in between election years, those roles are relatively limited,” the report states. “Better job matching could also help staffers find political roles more easily after a campaign ends.”
The report also touched on ad spending, noting that “progressives have lagged significantly behind conservatives in shifting ad spend towards digital media, with most Democratic campaigns only allocating a maximum of 20-30 [percent] of ad dollars towards digital; meanwhile, conservatives follow RNC guidelines that a minimum of 40 [percent] of ad budget must be online.”
Here Alter makes the case for culture overriding simple budget allocation. She cited the example of Taylor Swift’s public endorsement of Democrats Phil Bredesen and Jim Cooper in Tennessee’s Senate and House races. “Taylor Swift did not tweet, she did not Facebook message, she instagrammed about voting,” Alter said. “You’re still trying to get the people to put the right amount of budget on the core platforms.”
Meanwhile, Hoover’s group says those spending decisions are “partially due to natural risk-aversion from the national party and traditional ad shops, both of whom guide campaigns’ paid media buying.”