If 2008 and 2012 showed how the internet can help elect a president, 2016 surely showed the limits of its power, at least as far as conventional campaigns are concerned.
Talking about "traditional" online politics may sound funny considering how young the medium is. But as early as 2004 we could already see the outlines of the data- and digital-driven campaigns of today. That year, Howard Dean and (later) John Kerry demonstrated the power of the first element: online fundraising, driven by email and using lists built through every conceivable channel, from block parties to banner ads.
At the same time, the Republicans emphasized data-driven voter targeting, which the Bush campaign used in swing states like Ohio to identify supporters and get them to the polls. To round out the model, 2004 also saw a new kind of citizen involvement, from the bloggers touting "netroots" candidates to Dean activists gathering via Meetup. This last piece of the digital puzzle was hardest to bottle and replicate, but Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders demonstrated that when it worked, it could work big.
After 2008, most Democrats seem to have convinced themselves that changing demographics and a good digital infrastructure meant long-term victory was assured, the mid-term setbacks in 2010 and 2014 notwithstanding. This year, Hillary Clinton's team raised hundreds of millions of dollars online, built a massive data and human infrastructure to turn out their voters, invested their money in targeted TV advertising, created opportunities for volunteers to work in their own social circles on behalf of the candidate — all pieces Obama had shown should work.
And then came Donald Trump.
Actually, before Trump came Bernie Sanders, whose strength might have warned the Clinton campaign early that something was afoot. Bernie had passion, and so did his supporters—they broke small-dollar fundraising records and routinely blew Clinton away on social media during the Democratic primaries. He also had a message, which gave their passion a focus.
Clinton beat him, but it was close, and the questions he raised about her personal ethics would haunt her through the fall. What else should have haunted her campaign? The thought that Trump would bring out the same kind of passion in his voters.
Trump was a force not dreamt of in the Clinton campaign's organizational chart. We've talked before about his revolutionary use of social media as a personal medium, in part to dominate the endless cable-news jabber, but also to connect with his voters directly. Most importantly, he had a message: that something was broken in The System and he was the one to fix it.
Not all of his supporters may have completely agreed with the second part, but the idea that everyday people had been left behind was the gospel preached by Sanders and Trump alike. It was a message that resonated, and the Clinton team had nothing to counter it—their own lines were bloodless by comparison.
Trump's team didn't ignore the "traditional" digital model completely. He built a robust online fundraising program in a hurry, something his San Antonio-based new media team credits to Facebook's ability to help them microtarget and message-test their way into potential donors' hearts.
But whether those dollars helped win him the election depends on how much you think Trump's actual campaign spending made a difference, which is very much an open question. Likewise, Democrats may point out that the election would have gone a different way if their ground game had turned out a few tens of thousands more Clinton supporters in cities like Milwaukee and Philadelphia. But the point is, it didn't.
The message and the messenger overwhelmed the technocrats this time, and I bet they'll do it again. In a digital age, we've found that the basic rules of politics still apply: the best technology, know-how and staff don't matter one bit if the right voters won't buy what you're selling. In 2016, message trumped mechanics.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning Epolitics.com, a twenty-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com