Rob Quist didn't win Montana's lone House seat on May 25th, but he came close — far closer than most would have expected in a state that went for Donald Trump by more than 20 points in November.
Much of the analysis so far has tried to mine the results for insights into the 2018 midterms, but Quist's race and the other recent House special elections teach important digital lessons, if you know where to look. Let's highlight two that I think will play out bigly in races to come.
Sophisticated Online Ad Campaigns are Becoming Commonplace
For just one example, consider the Montana Democratic Party last week. Hoping to boost Quist's chances, the party worked with DSPolitical to buy display and pre-roll video ads targeting Montanans likely to lose medical coverage if Congressional Republicans follow through on their long-promised repeal of Obamacare. The actual amount was left vague, but it was in the five figures — more than enough to purchase hundreds of thousands of ad impressions.
Other groups showed how quickly they could react to breaking news: after Greg Gianforte body-slammed a reporter the night before Montanans went to the polls on Election Day, the DCCC, Priorities USA and MoveOn all ran digital ads that included audio from the scene. Neither attempt managed to push Quist over the line, but they foreshadow the targeted and nimble campaigns we can expect to see both sides use from now on. Note that Gianforte’s campaign claims to have raised $100,000 online in the hours after he assaulted Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs.
Digital ads have also played in the battle for Georgia's 6th House district, now down to a runoff between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Karen Handel. Once again, outside groups are big players, with the Paul Ryan-affiliated Congressional Leadership Fund using digital spots to tie Ossoff to Nancy Pelosi right after he won the first round in April. On the Left, MoveOn also played in the digital space as part of a combined TV/digital offensive against Handel. Looking nationally, the DCCC hit potentially vulnerable House Republicans over Obamacare repeal soon afterwards, in part to test messages for future TV buys.
Politics is Local, But Fundraising is National
In 2018, we can expect much more of the same, down to the high degree of involvement from national groups. One big reason: small-dollar digital donations. Quist's campaign benefited from national grassroots enthusiasm, raising millions from "more than 260,000 individual contributions averaging just $23,” a release boasted. With Republican groups pouring in money, Democratic donors helped Quist remain reasonably competitive, though Gianforte did out-spend him significantly.
Small-dollar donors also helped make Ossoff a viable candidate, in part via an early boost from the Daily Kos community. Ossoff is flush with cash going into the runoff, and so is the DCCC, which has already blown past its fundraising total from all of the last pre-midterm year, 2015. Crucially, the party committee's $20 million haul came in small increments, with an average donation of only $18.
As we've discussed many times, small-dollar donors don't run into contribution limits, meaning that campaigns and committees can hit them up again and again. Plus, those DCCC numbers translate to over one million individual donations, which likely translates in turn into many hundreds of thousands of individual donors. A strong base for 2018, and one that the NRCC has not yet been able to remotely match.
Politics still comes down to the candidate, the message and the moment. If money were all it took to win, Hillary Clinton would be in the White House. But the best candidate and the best message don't matter if the right voters don't hear them.
Based on the performance we've seen in this year's special elections, both sides have woken up to the power of digital ads to make sure they do. One of these days, that ability will prove decisive.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.