Since Donald Trump rode down an escalator to announce his run in 2015, Big Tech has struggled with its role in U.S. politics. Technology and strategies that were praised as innovative and revolutionary during Barack Obama’s elections in 2008 and 2012 for giving new voters a voice were, in the Trump era, viewed in a harsher light by those on the left. The last four years have been a confrontation over the reality that the modern digital public square is privately owned.
Last week, Google lifted its ban on ads related to political topics, but what if they hadn’t? What if Facebook maintains its similar policy? The two platforms, together with Amazon, take in some 70 percent of all U.S. online advertising spending. What would a worst-case scenario look like for candidates and their allies heading into the 2022 midterms and beyond? Here’s what that doomsday scenario could look like:
Facebook ads don’t return.
Facebook’s ad ban has been in effect since Nov. 3, with a brief lifting during the Georgia Senate runoffs. But so far this year the social media behemoth hasn’t provided any hints that ads for political issues will return.
A survey from the Center for Campaign Innovation found that 60 percent of voters use Facebook every day, while more than a third of Americans regularly get news from the site. By some estimates, however, just 5.2 percent of a page’s followers see the average Facebook post without paid promotion. This figure is likely to be even lower for candidates and issue advocacy groups following tests by the platform to reduce the amount of political content in news feeds.
P2P texting gets scaled back.
Half of voters in the same survey received text messages from candidates and their allies during the 2020 elections. Another study commissioned by Mitto found that texting influenced a third of voters and a quarter of donors.
The advent of peer to peer (P2P) texting provided a lifeline for politicians and PACs as phone answer rates have plummeted, but driven by consumer complaints and rampant abuse of the tactic, wireless companies are signaling they want changes in the P2P arena. Such changes could drastically cut back the reach and effectiveness of this channel.
Cord cutting continues.
Another trend that shows no signs of slowing down is cord cutting. Half of voters aged 18-34 either don’t watch live TV or don’t have cable or satellite. TV advertising is the most expensive line item for modern campaigns, yet its reach and efficiency is on the decline.
Many popular streaming platforms, such as Netflix, Apple TV+, and Disney+, are ad-free by default and advertisers from every industry face stiff competition for the spots.
More social platforms ban political ads completely.
Established social platforms like Twitter and Pinterest led the wave of outright bans, but emergent social media apps like TikTok are also following suit. While Facebook and Google are essential channels for reaching voters, political advertisers will miss out on new methods of persuading and activating users of popular social platforms. There’s strong support for silencing the noise from campaign ads. In fact, fifty-four percent of Americans say social media companies shouldn’t allow any political ads.
Postal mail remains slowed down.
There’s no shelter from the storm in analog campaign tactics either. Many of the delays in postal mail are a symptom of the COVID-19 pandemic, but slow downs caused by cost-saving measures may persist. The USPS already fast-tracks some political mail, but uncertainties with delivery could affect how campaigns use this core tactic.
Some of these trends are inevitable, but perhaps the greatest challenge for political campaigns and consultants is the uncertainty, which makes committing fully to certain strategies too risky. Beyond the short-term impacts of the disruptions for political professionals, there’s potential for lasting damage to civic participation.
For campaigners, our competition is no longer restricted to the opposite party. Rather, we compete with all of the other ways voters can spend their time. If these trends persist and candidates and their allies are shut off from reaching Americans alongside the media where they consume news and information, broad segments of the American populace may no longer be civically engaged.
Eric Wilson is the Managing Partner of Startup Caucus, an investment fund and accelerator for Republican campaign technology.