Through a pandemic and an economic downturn, civil unrest, and threats of election-related violence, Americans turned out to vote in 2020 in record numbers. And, as expected, the high proportion of early and mail-in ballots cast this year left the presidential contest undecided into Wednesday.
What is clear at this still early post-election stage is that this cycle has likely raised more questions for campaign practitioners than it’s answered. Here’s what we expect to dominate the industry conversation in the days and weeks that follow:
Where does survey research go from here?
There remain plenty of votes to be counted before we can embark on any real effort to assess what may have gone wrong with the polls in 2020. But there is much that needs to be answered here. At the presidential level, Trump overperformed his polling averages across a range of key battlegrounds, including Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Texas. And down-ballot, it certainly looks as though there were clear polling misses in some House and Senate contests. In short: this problem goes beyond public polling.
What field lessons will emerge from 2020?
One of the biggest impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic was the halt it placed on in-person canvassing. Door-to-door stopped entirely in the early part of the pandemic and it was Republican campaigns that resumed it more quickly than those on the Democratic side of the aisle. At one point near the end of the summer, the Trump campaign was knocking on an estimated million doors a week while the Biden campaign wasn’t canvassing in-person at all.
Some Democrats and allied groups donned PPE and did resume canvassing, including the Biden campaign down the stretch. But what impact the lack of canvassing may have had for Democrats in some key states is a legitimate question and one organizers will need to explore.
How about the other changes brought on by the pandemic? There was undoubtedly much learned in terms of digital voter contact. Which of those innovations will stick and which will be left in the rearview?
What’s next on the digital ad front?
One of the big questions is whether Facebook continues to accept political ads next cycle. There are some digital strategists who think it’s a real possibility the platform may simply say no. And it’s hard to think that isn’t at least somewhat more likely given what transpired in the final weeks of this year’s campaign.
The immediate question is how long Facebook’s post-election ad ban will last. While Facebook reps were privately telling campaigns prior to Election Day the ban was likely to be shorter rather than longer, the uncertainty in the presidential contest likely means campaigns won’t be able to count on paid Facebook ads being available to them again within the next week or so.
As expected, the Senate special election in Georgia will go to a January runoff meaning it’s one place where Facebook’s post-election ad ban will be immediately felt. There, you’ll see a concerted national effort from Democrats in the coming days to increase the attention on Raphael Warnock’s campaign and boost his fundraising.
Ultimately, navigating the political business for Facebook has been a challenge, particularly as it made rule changes in almost real-time and yet didn’t focus enough attention on stemming the spread of disinformation on its platform. In a world without Facebook advertising, or one in which the platform needs to be de-emphasized, what will digital strategists recommend to their clients as an alternative and what might fill the paid ad and acquisition void?
How quickly will alternative platforms and outreach rise?
From Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (D-N.Y.) well-watched Twitch stream to the Biden campaign’s in-game outreach to players in “Fortnite” and “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” Democrats certainly embraced new avenues this cycle. Watching from the other side, GOP digital consultant Eric Wilson said he believes future online outreach will have to incorporate some type of gamer strategy.
“Somewhere there are young campaign staffers trying to convince decision-makers that gaming and virtual communities are the future. Most won’t listen. A few will. They’ll have an edge. Then it will be obvious to everyone. This is what happened with digital,” he tweeted Nov. 1. “Content moderation in games will be an issue in 2024.”
Can texting sustain this volume?
Anyone on more than one campaign’s text list can tell you that volume is an issue when it comes to outreach on this channel. Is this pattern of elections being dominated by a crazy volume of text outreach here to stay? While a crackdown from wireless carriers, which some practitioners feared in the lead up to November, didn’t materialize this cycle, regulatory hurdles loom and the Supreme Court may also have an impact here.
SCOTUS is set to hear arguments in a case that could clarify the definition of an auto dialing system. Arguments will take place on December 8 with a ruling likely to come in April or May of next year.
What will the final spending numbers tell us?
Final numbers are yet to be crunched obviously, but we know that more money has been spent on digital advertising in 2020 than in any election ever. Google and Facebook spend, just from the Trump and Biden campaigns, topped $446 million through Oct. 18, according to ACRONYM’s digital dashboard. When the final numbers come in, and the final votes are counted, practitioners can better assess which of these investments paid off.
At the same time, TV advertising surged to historically high levels. Wesleyan Media Project tracked more than $1.5 billion in ad spending on TV, digital and radio in the presidential between April 9 and October 25 — $991 million of that was from the candidates themselves. Biden outspent Trump by some $75 million on broadcast TV and just under $70 million on local cable, according to Wesleyan, while Trump held a $35.3 million edge on digital. And down-ballot, many House races saw unheard of levels of TV ad spending over the campaigns final weeks.