This issue’s Shoptalkers: Shayna Englin, managing director at Mercury Public Affairs; Chris Faulkner, owner of Gridiron Communications; John Thomas, founder and CEO of Thomas Partners Strategies; and Michael Trujillo, senior advisor to Ready for Hillary PAC.
C&E: What are the major takeaways from the 2014 cycle?
Shayna Englin: There have been some things that were field tested this cycle that I think are interesting and we’ll probably see more of them in 2016. There’s a mobile field app called Organizer that is totally data agnostic. The compelling thing is that you literally cut turf and in real time you see what’s happening in the field. It’s tied to GPS and connected to NationBuilder’s API. It’s one thing to take field data like doors-per-hour at the end of the week or after two days, but what areas are we actually having high contact rates versus high numbers of doors-per-hour? Instead of having to look at that data two days later, you can see it in real time and reassign someone.
Chris Faulkner: I fear 2015. Our loyal base is going to wake up and say, “We can’t run the country now that we have the Senate?” And then we have to go through the slow walk of explaining that while we have 52 seats [we’re not totally in charge]. Then you have voters who get turned off. I very vividly remember election night 2006. It goes in cycles. You have good and bad elections. But as a consultant, I wish we’d stop talking about digital and start talking about data. Data should drive all the decisions.
John Thomas: The obsession with digital is just that, and I don’t think it’s necessarily justified. It’s all about big data.
Englin: I think we’re in this weird zone where people understand that data is important—they want data, but they have no idea what to do with it. There’s an attraction toward this thing [digital] that gives you data, and it’s misguided because data’s not connected to decisions.
Michael Trujillo: There’s a lot that we’ve learned [at Ready for Hillary]. We’ve had staff in 16 different states. We’re building a list. When Hillary shut down in 2008, we had 8 million emails nationwide. When Obama shut down his reelect in 2012, he had 33 million emails nationwide. Right now Ready for Hillary has in the range of 3 million supporters nationwide, which if she doesn’t run will be handed over to whomever is the Democratic nominee. It’s a function of just being a good team player.
C&E: Speaking of Ready for Hillary, will future national-level campaigns need a permanent infrastructure?
Faulkner: That used to be called state parties. You don’t have that kind of infrastructure any more. And our industry is changing fundamentally. The way that people consume information, the way that people make their decisions—consumer or otherwise. Campaigns are medium-sized businesses with real payrolls and real cash flows. Still, we kind of run them like garage sales. If you believe in analytics, you’re talking about months and years of build-up to make those kinds of good decisions.
Thomas: To Chris’ point, you can’t wake up one day and say, “I’m going to run for president or I’m going to run for governor.” You need to prepare. It helps to have an organization that has a longer-term perspective and that’s the problem with campaigns: we don’t. We’re not planning for the long-term. Ready for Hillary is a good example of an organization that’s planning in perpetuity. On the right, when it comes to the presidential, I don’t think we have a permanent organization quite like that. But we do have groups that are grassroots training and organizing groups like American Majority that work cycle in and cycle out.
C&E: Has digital been the answer for underfunded campaigns?
Englin: The challenge is that if you’re underfunded then you probably also are not able to fund the data that you need to actually make the digital piece effective. Where it’s going to be effective is if you have an amazing digital hygiene system where you identify people in the voter file and are using a system that pairs them to social media profiles and their consumption online. You can be incredibly targeted in that way. But if you’re underfunded, you’re probably not funding that data hygiene either.
I wouldn’t go all the way to say it’s completely irrelevant, but it’s a funding decision. And you may have to decide, do I fund another week of additional field staff or do I fund a digital program? You fund your field staff. Or you fund your mail or you fund your radio or TV before you add on to your digital. Where digital has been put out, it’s in the more paid media space. I think it’s probably more effective if you consider it more on the field side.
Faulkner: Set yourself up with realistic expectations. Let’s face it, the best digital advertising is the stuff you can’t buy. It’s organic. And so if you had $75,000, theoretically, for a digital budget, which is big, I would go find a super awesome person who can engage with my supporters. I’d rather pay that guy to sit there all day and engage with people than buy Facebook ads. And then, theoretically, if he does his job, he can raise enough money to pay for some advertising.
Thomas: We often use digital pre-roll when we have an underfunded television program that we’d like to, say, run for eight weeks, but we only have enough for three. So we’ll start 8-to-10 weeks out on pre-roll to give it a little push with some of those key demographics. Digital can be really useful, but should we be investing 10 percent of our budget in Facebook likes? No, it’s a waste of time. Digital has it’s place, I just don’t think it’s the end-all be-all. It’s hard to make that digital decision for budget allocation when you’re underfunded dramatically. Because at what cost does digital come? Is it to the direct mail program? Is it to the GOTV program or TV? I’d rather put those in first and then if there’s any money left over use it for digital.
You also have to look at the size and scope of your budget. An underfunded congressional campaign should stick to doing the essentials first and maybe a little nuance with digital. But if I’m running a statewide ballot prop in California and have $100 million, maybe I take a million or two from that allocation—I’ve already done my television program. I’ve got a good message arc. What’s one more spot in a Ventura market going to get me on television as opposed to reaching them in a different format?
Digital’s very useful in those high-profile races where you’ve got so much money you can’t spend it all and you’re looking for different ways to target and nuance voters. If you have the big data and you have the set up to do that, digital can be an interesting component.
Trujillo: Digital can echo whatever your earned media is getting. If there’s a late-breaking story, digital can help connect folks to that. But I’m running a House race in the Central Valley [California’s 21st district] and right now a gross rating point costs me $171 for one point, which is super cheap. It’s radio and TV in the Central Valley, it takes you an hour and a half to get anywhere because [the district is] so huge. So screw digital, everyone’s driving. But if you’re doing a statewide like what John is saying, you can connect it with a newspaper article or some TV earned media and echo that.
C&E: What about the targeting that digital advertising gives you?
Faulkner: I can’t take credit for this quote, but our ability to target, especially digitally, has far outpaced our ability to effectively create content. That applies to both sides. In mail, we run into this all the time. We sit down with the campaign eight weeks before the election. You can tease out all these cool little universes of left-handed dentists who care about this issue and then come up with 47 super-specific mail pieces across eight weeks. But find me a campaign manager of a congressional race who has the organizational discipline and ability to get me content, photos and get approval for all those mail pieces. The reality is they’re going to be like seven or eight, because that’s what they can organizationally conceptualize and wrap their minds around. And that’s just the reality of it.
Thomas: We see the same on the TV side as well. If you’ve got a firm that has 50 races and they’ve got to cut another Obamacare ad, how creative are they going to be? It just comes boilerplate. They’re painting by numbers. We just use the same old, tired creative.
Faulkner: In television, it’s even worse because you’re spending even more money. Okay, the polling said if we talk about A, B and C it will affect voters X, Y, and Z, so we cut an ad, but we don’t know necessarily if the creative is connecting with people. By the time you say, “Aha, we’ve got a silver bullet,” the campaign basically says, “Dude, we’ve moved on.” I think our timelines for organizational delivery within most campaigns don’t work well with the testing process. But our side is far worse at testing. With the Obama campaign, and all the associated stories that came after it, on our side there was this big weeping and gnashing of teeth about how we need to test. And then everyone’s like, what does that mean? I don’t know.
C&E: Digital consultants say that many voters see their messages online for the first time—isn’t that a testament to the effectiveness of their ads?
Faulkner: Is that because one of the person’s friends shared it? I don’t disagree with that, but I don’t think it’s because there was a banner ad. I’ve been online all morning, I probably saw tons of banner ads. I don’t think I could remember one of them.
Thomas: The message has to be right to break through. It has to be really good creative. It’s got to be honest and credible. I think voters are quick to tune out those tired ads they’ve been seeing. It takes a little more to break through in a cycle in which voters just don’t care. But it starts with good research.
Englin: I don’t think it’s about channel. On the Democratic side, there are lots of people saying, “I have no reason to believe that this matters to me.” On the public affairs side, I think the challenge is just being way smarter about who you’re saying what to, when and how. Yes, honest, yes, authentic and yes, transparent, but from what I’ve seen, I’ve been disappointed in the lack of application of the data that we do have.
C&E: Are your clients trusting you to give them advice on messaging?
Faulkner: October’s the worst month for this scenario: You’re on a conference call and literally a first-time candidate is telling you what message they think is going to connect with voters. I had this conversation with this guy who built up his own business in the HVAC industry. Great story, and I said, “Dave when my air conditioner’s broke, I call a repairman. Your campaign is broke, so you called a repairman. I don’t get over your shoulder and tell you how to fix the air conditioning.” He said, “that’s a fair point,” and then he plowed ahead with his idea.
Englin: My gut tells me to trust your poll.
Trujillo: There’s no TV show, there’s no section of the newspaper that specifically talks about air conditioning repairmen. So the air conditioning repairman, he’s seeing TV shows about politics. He’s seeing it on his nightly news, he’s opening the L.A. Times or the Washington Post and he’s reading about politics. That’s why he’s running for office, because he’s always had an interest in it. So for him, it’s easy. He says, “These guys are stupid. I could run my own campaign.”
Faulkner: It’s not that I think we deal with stupid people. I think the vast majority of people who run for public office, whether it be dog catcher or president, are highly smart, organized successful people, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. But with that confidence sometimes also comes the inability to take advice.
C&E: Mike, how did you deal with the immigration issue in your race?
Trujillo: Talking about education, jobs, the water crisis. On immigration, I think for a lot of the Hispanic community it’s a rerun of being disappointed. [George W.] Bush was going to do something, didn’t happen. Obama campaigned on something, it didn’t happen. We’ve seen this “I Love Lucy” episode before. Folks in the Latino community care dearly about immigration reform, but they also care about other things: jobs, education, and the water crisis in the Central Valley.
C&E: Have you done anything different tactically this cycle?
Trujillo: If you can have that face-to-face contact at the door [with Latino voters], it’s far better than phones. You’re speaking to them in Spanish and you’re educating them on the process and you’re helping them fill out their ballot, which is allowed—you’re just not giving them a stamp, which is not allowed. You’re giving them a hotline to call; you’re doing door hangers 30 days in advance. It’s all field. Twenty-one towns in this district and you have to get deep saturation. You’re not going to get them on TV.
Thomas: In the 31st district in the Inland Empire, we’re looking at really low turnout numbers despite the DCCC spending almost $2 million to my candidate’s $200,000. Still, we’re highly competitive. The Dems brought Bill Clinton and Joe Biden out to try to boost turnout. It’s a D+7 district, but Latinos aren’t voting, even though a Latino Democrat is on the ballot, they just don’t care. Even with Biden coming to town, it’s not that much earned media attention and they can’t send Barack Obama himself because he’s so unpopular.
Faulkner: The motivation problem is a bipartisan problem.
Englin: I think the most interesting thing happening when it comes to turning out low-propensity voters isn’t happening at the federal level. Some of what we’ve been doing in down-ballot races is if you look at moving the likely voters who are Latino from 11 percent to 11.5 percent, when their propensity within the file as registered voters is 35 percent, it’s likely going to be the margin. You don’t have to do all that much. You literally identify your thousand voters and I can assign a field team to them.
Faulkner: There are always issues and they are very regionalized and very specific that will break that trend and cause a level of interest to spike. And it’s usually something as consultants we can’t control. I lived in northern Indiana in 2005 when the incoming Republican governor decided we were going to embrace the 21st century, and we were going to get on Daylight Savings Time. You would have thought we were asking for naked photos of people’s mothers— “Wheel of Fortune’s going to be on at seven instead of six!” It was a deep, personal issue, but those highly localized issues are hard to scale up.
C&E: Democrats could face another headwind in 2016. What’s the best way to distance yourself from the national party brand?
Thomas: In almost all of the messaging I’ve done this cycle in California, I can’t think of one voter persuasion piece where I was waving the Republican flag. We usually don’t even talk about the fact that we’re Republican. We can win on the issues; we can’t win on the party. I think the Democrats are going to suffer that same problem in 2016. My hunch is that we’re going to be looking for the anti-Obama. The American people are going to want someone who’s less about hope and change and more about results and getting things done. The Democrats are going to have to take a couple plays out of our playbook. In down ticket races, our opponents have an easier story to tell. They say, “but he’s a Republican” or “she’s a Tea Party Republican.” It’s digestible, it’s quick for the electorate to get it, and they pick their sides. But the bar is higher being a Republican in California. I have to break through with a message like, “it’s not about being a Republican: We share similar values.” That’s a lot more expensive to communicate in these down-ticket races and we just don’t have the money a lot of the time.
Englin: I think in some places and in some circumstances, it’s more possible than others. But by and large, that’s not a particularly good strategy. I’ve never seen it done particularly effectively.
C&E: Is social media a goldmine of opposition research?
Trujillo: It used to be you flew [into the district] and had to go to the courts. Now it’s just nerds in basements and they give you a list and ask if you can have an intern go to the court and pull this. You go through everything that’s available online and then you do your FOIA request and get everything you possibly need. But I think at least for the next two cycles, Facebook and Twitter will be a treasure trove. But as the generation that was the Facebook generation comes up [that could change]. It just depends on how you use it.
Faulkner: The tolerance level—whether it’s drunk Facebook photos or stupid comments you’ve made on Twitter, people are going to say, “Ah, I’ve done that.”
Thomas: You need to think years in advance about what office you’re going to run for. If you’ve got some things on your Facebook, or your mom posted unflattering pictures, or your friend tagged you in one, you need to do a self-vulnerability assessment. How do you inoculate yourself from it and keep it out in the public domain? But yes, Facebook will be the gift that keeps giving.
Englin: The number one lesson I tell my son, who is 15, is if it’s online, it’s forever. That picture that you snapchatted, it’s findable at one point. It’ll be a trove of unfaltering pictures.
Trujillo: Here’s the actual thing that is so useful about Facebook. I might not start with your Social Security number [while doing research], but I get it. The way to match it [to public records] is with your date of birth—and everyone has their date of birth on Facebook. It saves me like five days [of research]. That’s probably the best little factoid.
Thomas: You’re seeing these third-party groups that are just opposition research groups. That’s all they do, full time. The research for me gets more valuable each cycle. As the free press gets smaller and smaller, you just feed people those little gotcha stories. The reporters aren’t going to do their own research.
Trujillo: The number of reporters gets smaller and smaller each cycle.
Englin: But the readership of those small local sources is really high.