In 2019, what’s a campaign to do? With 20 Democrats running for president, including Uncle Joe Biden but excluding Mike Gravel, how can anyone stand out from the crowd? Down-ballot, too, candidates face the same challenge with presidential politics (and tweets) devouring most of the oxygen in our media echo chamber.
The answer so far? Experimentation, with an emphasis on appealing to the grassroots. We've seen some weird results in the process: Bernie Sanders wowed a Fox News-selected audience, the mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana, Pete Buttigieg, vaulted to prominence via a CNN town hall, and Andrew Yang appeared on a podcast and is suddenly a viable White House candidate. Meanwhile, Roy Moore's polling well in Alabama and Ukraine just elected a comedian and TV star as their next president. Is it May yet?
Some bets may or may not pay off. Consider Elizabeth Warren, who's invested heavily in staff, though her campaign may struggle to raise enough money to feed them. She's not alone in risking flameout, since outside observers may reasonably question whether Beto and Buttigieg can maintain their current buzz in between now and New Hampshire. Go back to 1968 and ask Eugene McCarthy about the dangers of peaking too soon. Not helping Buttigieg? The lack of anything resembling policy positions on his website.
Just about everyone's bullish on social media and text messaging, with the average presidential campaign posting on Facebook about four times per day (according to my Crowdtangle monitoring list). Texting an SMS short code also seems to have replaced signing up for an email list as the candidates' ask du jour, judging by what I see on their podiums and signs. But will the voters be as enthusiastic about 24/7 contact? They at least say they're souring on the socials when pollsters ask them, though we'll see if they live up to that sentiment and do something else with their fingertips this year.
I do suspect that broadcast SMS and peer-to-peer (P2P) texting may both see somewhat of a backlash this election cycle. I've heard anecdotal evidence that voters in battleground states wearied of the constant barrage of texts Hustle-ing out of myriad turnout operations last year, partially fueled by the DNC's big mobile-number buys for the 2018 cycle.
Friends of mine at least are already being turned off by campaign texts this time around, with one noting that Beto's campaign texted him five times on the day he announced his presidential campaign alone. Considering that P2P lives in a grey area (it does an end-run around the usual limits on mass-texting from a phone number), could overuse imperil the entire industry?
At least we know digital fundraising still works, with Democrats announcing big numbers regularly — and Donald Trump even bigger ones. But in an environment where Jay Inslee can raise over a million in his first weekend in the race, grassroots donors seem likely to keep the Democratic field healthy and large for many months to come, a boon for campaigns whose only hope of making it into the Democratic debates is a large fundraising base.
At least Trump's predictable: between rounds on the golf course, he's still tweeting about NO COLLUSION. At least when he's not busy accusing his political rivals of insufficient patriotism (this from a man who specifically asked Russian intelligence to hack his opponents, hours before they did so). Just as in 2016, his campaign is spending heavily to reach his base on Facebook, apparently without much attention to persuading anyone who doesn't already agree with him this time. Also pouring significant money into Facebook and Google ads: Bernie, Warren, and Harris, along with Tom Steyer, whose Need To Impeach apparently knows few financial bounds.
Meanwhile, campaigns are madly live streaming every speech, rally, and appearance, when they're not sharing their dental visits with the world. No potentially viral moment may go unexploited! The pace must be exhausting: candidates at least used to have a moment here and there to think. But now the social beasts must be fed at all costs and all hours. I eagerly await the inevitable video from the bathroom of an Iowa truck stop. Just think: only 18 months until Election Day. By then, I’m sure we'll be happy to elect a new president who only exists in virtual reality.
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 email@example.com.