As Republican and Democratic campaigners shake off their post-midterm hangovers, a chasm yawns before them. Both sides face a serious capacity gap: how can they find enough qualified staff for all the contested races in 2020?
The need seems most immediately urgent on the Democratic side, where two-to-three dozen nationally known candidates may dive into the race for president in the coming year. They'll all need traditional campaign managers, communications directors and skilled political operators, and they're already competing to line up staff with experience at a national level and in key states.
A modern presidential campaign also requires a modern digital operation, including staff and consultants with skills in online advertising, social media outreach, data analytics, email fundraising, content creation and much more. Whether they want to create a Trump-style Facebook machine or an Obama-style grassroots army, they'll need people who know how to do it – and right now those people are a limited commodity. Add in the dozens of Senate races, hundreds of House races and thousands of state-level races in which Democrats hope to compete in 2020, plus the outside organizations hoping to persuade and mobilize voters across the country, and the scale of the need becomes clear.
With campaign spending on digital outreach exploding, we can expect the demand for digital knowledge to grow below the presidential level — on both sides. Based on conversations I've had, down-ballot candidates want to go digital, but often don't even know enough to understand where to start.
Plus, technologists keep adding new tools to the collection, such as the peer-to-peer texting tools that went from novel to standard in one election cycle. Each new channel or app will need someone who knows how to use it, plus their actual time – the one priceless commodity in any campaign.
Down-ballot, skills are scarce. Late in this past cycle, for example, I spoke with state legislative campaigns struggling to set up the most basic Facebook advertising campaigns. Even if someone was on hand who'd used the technology, they might not understand, say, how to set up targeting universes for GOTV vs. persuasion.
A group like Tech for Campaigns can match Democratic candidates with Silicon Valley volunteer technologists. But unless the techies have some basic political knowledge or experience, their skills don't guarantee a good strategy. A mechanically perfect Facebook advertising campaign is useless – or possibly counter-productive – if doesn't target the right voters with the right ask at the right time. And few volunteers working occasionally from halfway across the country are likely to run an effective data-driven field campaign.
For most of us, volunteers cannot substitute for trained digital staff or consultants (Bernie Sanders may have benefited from volunteer techies, but he relied on Revolution Messaging for his core digital work). Those Democratic presidential campaigns will shake loose staff as they fail one by one, but where will the rest come from?
On the Democratic side, organizations like the National Democratic Training Committee and Arena hope to train hundreds or thousands of potential candidates and staff, and one-off events like the upcoming RootsCamp in Baltimore can help individual activists enlighten each other.
But groups like these can't substitute for a comprehensive, national-party-organized training apparatus active in every state. State parties can set up their own, but many of them have struggled digitally themselves. They need as much help as their candidates. Will the national parties make training as high a priority as fundraising?
Where’s The Republican ActBlue?
Speaking of donations, Republicans have an extra capacity hurdle to leap: they need a conservative alternative to ActBlue, the website that collected more than a billion dollars for Democrats in 2018 alone. (I have a vague memory of one Republican attempt called Slatecard from around 2007-2008, but it seems to have evaporated without leaving a mark.) Mitch McConnell has highlighted ActBlue's energizing effect on Democrats after this year's midterms, and building a Republican equivalent is apparently a high priority for the party.
One of ActBlue's great attributes is that it can store donors' information between transactions, meaning that they can donate to another campaign with a single click. Given that the Trump campaign raised upwards of $240 million from grassroots donors largely recruited via Facebook in just a few months in 2016, Republicans would seem to be leaving money on the table if they don't make it as easy as possible for supporters to give down-ballot.
Most of the upcoming capacity battle won't be waged in public. Instead, it will take place online and in hundreds of boring conference rooms and meeting halls in communities across America. But while largely hidden, it could be the most important fight of 2020. An old military adage often holds true in politics, too: amateurs talk strategy, but professionals talk logistics.
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.