Viral campaign videos are officially In. They're "replacing pricey campaign ads," according to the New York Times, giving candidates a new way to introduce themselves to their voters and to a national community of donors. Democrats like Anastasia Ocasio-Cortez in New York, MJ Hegar in Texas and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts are riding the combination of personal, authentic-feeling videos and social media (paid and organic) to national prominence and fundraising glory.
Could campaign videos replace TV ads, email fundraising and a host of other political technologies? Let's look at another 2018 candidate for an answer: Beto O'Rourke. The Texas Democrat has famously visited all 254 Texas counties in person as he campaigns for Senate, using social media to amplify the process along the way. He's also raised tens of millions of dollars from grassroots Democrats across the country — in part, through an email fundraising program that has strained my inbox. On the paid media side, he's bought advertising across the board: digital, TV, radio and even print.
Beto is raising money via email for a good reason: video may excel at making the sale, but fundraising and organizing are all about building relationships over time. While a compelling, personal video can catch an activist's heart, it's still just the start of a process that continues through email, text messages, social media and personal contact. TV ads aren't going away soon, either: too many American voters aren't on Facebook or Instagram, and a campaign that ignores the airwaves completely is writing off a sizable part of the electorate. As we get closer to Election Day, I suspect that a good chunk of the money raised through viral videos will end up being spent on television.
More important than the actual videos is what they tap into: a network of passionate Democratic donors across the country. These individual activists have become the distributed financing arm of the grassroots Resistance, providing the resources for a Beto or a Stacey Abrams to compete in areas Democrats had long surrendered. Their zeal may create some real surprises on Election Day.
If you look back at previous wave elections, the party riding the wave usually ends up capturing more than just those seats that would normally be close. They tend to win a noticeable number of long-shot races as well, assuming that they have candidates running with the resources to seize the moment. Grassroots Democratic donors have been willing to take chances on long-shot campaigns that the party committees and PACs can't or won't touch, potentially expanding the electoral battleground. If Democratic candidates win in weird places on November 6th, grassroots funding will have helped make it happen.
Whatever the final financial tally this cycle, the feelings awakened by powerful and personal campaign videos may last beyond the moment. Ocasio-Cortez has become a celebrity as much as a politician, and she and her compatriots are building relationships with donors and activists across the country on a vast scale. One day perhaps we’ll look back on her video as an emblem: what a political movement looks like in an age when teenagers dream of YouTube stardom.
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 22-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.