It’s not uncommon for today’s voters to have no landline phone, live in apartment buildings that can’t be canvassed, and rarely see television ads given that many don’t subscribe to cable. These are exactly the type of voters that campaigns want to reach, but traditional political organizing efforts now have no way to talk to them.
The ability to effectively communicate with voters online is the biggest advancement in organizing of the 2014 cycle. This makes perfect sense given that according to the PEW Research Internet Project, 39 percent of adults engage in civic and political activities on social media, and 16 percent have changed their minds about an issue based on others’ comments.
Increasingly, these voters are becoming the norm, and candidates are undeniably dealing with an inability to directly reach them. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that over 40 percent of American homes now only have cellphones. And according to the National Multifamily Housing Council, 37 million Americans now live in apartment buildings with five or more units, making these doors unreachable by campaigns.
Take Boston and Denver—both major cities in states where recent Democratic Senate races started off as slam dunks for the blue team and ended up in the Republican column on Election Day. In both cities, the population is about one-third apartment dwellers.
Campaigns have come a long way toward harnessing the power of social media, but there’s work to be done. Firms like Targeted Victory on the right, DSPolitical on the left, and nonpartisan Campaign Grid have made huge strides by matching voter files to online ad targeting, allowing online campaign ads the same kind of direct targeting normally reserved for snail mail.
And at NationBuilder, we’ve built social-media matching into our voter files so that simply knowing an email address will let the software connect a voter’s picture, bio, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Klout.
So given these trends and developments, what’s next for 2016?
The big challenge for future campaigns will be moving from online advertising to full-fledged online and mobile voter ID efforts. If we can’t talk to 40 percent of voters with traditional organizing efforts—phone banks and canvassing—then we need to be able to talk to them through social media and cellphones. The door-knock of the future will be a Twitter direct message, and the phone call of the future will be enabled by SMS opt-in.
There are five keys to succeeding in this modernization of grassroots organizing and voter identification programs:
- Full social media integration means going beyond adding a Facebook icon next to a voter’s name in the file. Field staff need to be alerted when voters engage on their websites or social media platforms.
- Campaigns need to share more than address and phone data with their grassroots leaders. Precinct captains need bios, photos and other information gained from online interactions.
- Training is needed to understand this shift in how campaigns talk with voters. A neighborhood leader will need to do more than cut a walk list – we’re moving from riding horses to driving cars.
- Campaigns must shift focus toward capturing mobile numbers. Having an event? Text to RSVP. Petition? Text to sign. Survey? Text to reply.
- The party infrastructure and campaign need to be in sync and must engage in the same efforts year round. Finding this data won’t occur overnight.
When campaigns succeed in mastering this new realm of communicating with voters, democracy will win, too. More people will be more directly engaged in governing, and the nation will be stronger as a result.
Michael Moschella is a vice president at NationBuilder.