Democratic digital consultants aren’t waiting for the party to do an official post-mortem on 2016. The debate over the future of their side’s campaign strategy is raging through the festive season.
Should there be more spent on digital and less on TV? Should paid canvassing be abandoned and that money put toward online persuasion? The longevity of some partisan firms may depend on how those questions get answered in the months to come.
For now, there’s no official post-mortem report forthcoming from the DNC. Instead there’s a chorus of different voices ranging from disgruntled donors to top consultants making their pitches for which direction to steer the ship in 2017.
In some cases, they’re hoping to influence the candidates for the DNC chairmanship, which will be voted on at the party’s winter meeting in February.
“Clearly this election calls for a reassessment of the [party’s] tools and tactics,” Steve Phillips, a consultant who has been at the forefront of a push for greater diversity on his side of the industry, told C&E. “This election both Republicans and Democrats spent hundreds of millions of dollars on television ads and got beat by a guy on Twitter.”
Phillips believes that in the wake of the 2016 results, it’s time to add new blood to the party’s ranks of consultants and committee staffers. “They need to break it open,” he said.
In fact, Phillips is helping lead an advocacy group called Democracy in Color, which has gathered more than 1,000 signatures to an online letter telling the DSCC “that it's time to build a Democracy in Color by hiring a racially diverse team at the senior levels.”
“It’s still a problem,” Phillips said, “the consulting dollars going to white-owned firms in a country that’s 38 percent people of color, in a party that’s 46 percent people of color.
“They need better operatives and consultants and communicators who are more in touch with communities of color — that’s a clear takeaway from this election.”
There are numbers to back up his argument. For instance, Hillary Clinton received 5 percent less support from black voters and 6 percent less from Latino voters than President Obama did in 2012, according to exit polling.
“The leaders and the staffing of the DCCC, the DSCC and the DNC, those are the people and those are the entries who are going to spend a half billion dollars over the next two years,” said Phillips.
“What I’m focused on is who is going to be hired for those positions. What’s the diversity of those people? And how are they going to look at interacting with the voting population?”
Phillips also takes issue with the party’s tactics. He pointed to its targeting as an example. In Arizona, he noted, “the Democrats decided to go in late and it was almost all television ads and almost all targeting white voters. It was a strategic, demographic misalignment and technological misalignment in terms of how Democrats were spending their money.”
But this is where Phillips is facing a difference of opinion. While consultants like Phillips see the potential in digital ad targeting as a way to target, persuade and turnout voters of color (with consultants of color being the ones allocating the ad dollars), other strategists fear that white voters are being overlooked in that equation.
“We cannot become a reductionist party that decides we’re going to continue to use data and analytics not to expand the universe of people we’re talking to but to shrink it down,” Guy Cecil, who ran the Clinton-allied Super PAC Priorities USA, recently told Politico.
“And what I mean by that is when you look forward to 2018, we have Senate races in Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana and Ohio—all states that have less diversity than the national average. And so this ‘either/or’ — we either talk to African-Americans or Hispanics or we talk to the white working class, which is how much of the dialogue has been portrayed up until this point, in terms of the analysis of the election — is pretty defeatist.”
There’s another area where Phillips finds himself adrift from other Democratic consultants. To wit, he warned that placing too much emphasis on digital and ignoring traditional outreach tactics is detrimental to Democrats’ future chances.
Digital, he said, “is a critical piece of the puzzle, but there’s the old fashioned technology of person-to-person conversation that’s also missing in the party’s approach as well.
Showing up in churches and working with community groups is an additional part of what the party needs to be doing.”
That was reportedly a misstep the Clinton camp made in Michigan — relying too heavily on “scientifically” proven methods.
Still, Scott Goodstein, the digital consultant helming Revolution Messaging, says its toward the computer sciences that Democrats now need to turn. In a recent opinion piece, he called for shifting his party’s strategic focus away from tactics like paid or volunteer canvassing and TV advertising, and toward digital persuasion.
“Democratic campaigns have been built on door to door operations, affectionately nicknamed the ‘ground game;’ that was everyone's first job in politics. But canvassing has diminishing returns,” he wrote.
The Clinton campaign, he added, “relied too heavily on outdated voter engagement methods that are ineffective for millennials. … We must retire the party's dinosaurs who still can't see it and do a much better job engaging millennials.”
Now, it could be that all this gnashing of teeth is for naught, according to Bryan Whitaker and Josh Hendler.
The two former heads of technology at the DNC said that while technological improvements are needed on their side — particularly in terms of cyber security — overall the situation isn’t as dire as it seems.
“It is, of course, fair game to question all DNC and campaign expenditures,” the duo wrote in a recent open letter to the candidates running to lead the DNC.
“However, it’s worth picking apart exactly what this infrastructure provides. These investments in technology, digital, and analytics by the Democratic Party over the last 10 years haven’t just resulted in better statistical techniques to help microtarget voters. They have improved the the fundamentals of voter contact.”
That digital infrastructure is still effective, they said. “Don’t panic.”