I've never been able to say this before, but we really don't know what political campaigning will look like in six months. If coronavirus-induced social distancing norms are still in force close to Election Day 2020, most campaigns won't be able to knock on doors, hold rallies or assemble local supporters in numbers. Many of our most effective mobilization tools simply won't be available.
The result could be an election more like 1980 than 2018, at least if campaign managers default to TV ads as a substitute for in-person contact. Savvier campaigns will put their money into a mix of paid media, including TV and radio, but also Google ads, Facebook ads, and targeted banner and pre-roll video ads. But if voters are still sitting at home in their own media bubbles, mute button at the ready, paid advertising may just become visual background noise, when people see it at all.
Text messages and phone calls can help break through the message clutter, but campaigns may struggle to keep supporters engaged over the long haul without the social aspect of volunteering for a candidate in person. Another option? Using those supporters' creativity, not just their ability to dial a phone.
I discussed "self-organizing" as a broader, tech-enabled campaign strategy last year, but this time I'm talking about something more specific: content creation and distribution, including photos, videos, and memes, on a campaign's behalf. After all, if supporters get fired up about a candidate, they'll advocate online — whether the campaign knows it or not. In the process, they might adopt organizing technology developed for other purposes, as Howard Dean's supporters did with Meetup in 2003.
For a more recent example, look at Warren's Meme Team, who turned their passion for the senator from Massachusetts into a wide array of pro-Warren selfie “lenses.” These overlaid people's own photos with Warren-themed imagery, basically a baby step toward political augmented reality. The group organized online, and their content, shared via social media, reached people tens of millions of times for free and without Warren's staff having to touch a keyboard.
Of course, memers probably didn't change many votes in the Democratic primary, if any, since voters were already processing a lot of information about each candidate as it was. The 2016 election may have been different. We’ll never know for sure, but it's possible that pro-Trump memes did have an effect then, as millions of people enthusiastically shared them. Along the way, they became a digital tribal marker for the faithful.
Down ballot, where name recognition is a precious commodity, passionate or clever content created or shared by a friend may be one of the few things to stick in a voter's mind when she or he looks at the names on a ballot. But while Trump was perfectly happy if his supporters stepped outside the bounds of polite digital conversation, many political professionals fear blowback if an overzealous volunteer does something horrible online. Bernie Bros, anyone?
One answer: training.
Back in 2015, I listened in on a training for Hillary Clinton supporters who'd agreed to receive prepackaged tweets and links to other campaign content to share on Twitter. The main message? Be yourself, be polite, don't use more than two hashtags, don't feed the trolls and don't just tweet about Clinton. Not exactly rocket science. But the session did reinforce the idea that people would be speaking on their candidate’s behalf and should act accordingly, and it took all of about 25 minutes on a conference call.
What else can campaigns ask supporters to do? Create their own videos explaining why they love Biden or Trump or their state legislator. Post photos of themselves holding campaign signs or hand-written slogans, tagged with an appropriate hashtag so that campaign staff can promote them through official digital channels.
Write Facebook posts explaining why a particular issue — like healthcare coverage — affects them personally and why it drives their support for a candidate. Want gamification? Create video or photo contests, with supporters voting for the winners, or add a system that awards points for taking particular online actions. Everyone gets to feel like they're more involved in the campaign, and they should volunteer more and donate more as a result.
Again, their outreach likely won't tightly target priority voters, unless it's combined with relational organizing tools. But it would help campaigns connect with voters via the strongest channels we have: friends and family. With a pandemic drawing us closer together even in isolation, the personal touch may be more effective than paying to contact the people we need to win in November and to govern thereafter.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-four-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.