The dust is still settling on the 2018 midterm elections, but it’s never too early to look ahead. From spending patterns to advertising trends, there’s plenty for the political campaign industry to assess in the coming weeks and months.
Here are a handful of the questions we’ll be focused on heading into the next cycle:
What’s the spending fallout?
The 2018 midterms set a record with an estimated $5.2 billion in spending, according to an estimate from the Center for Responsive Politics. While there’s still much to be dissected in terms of the dollars that went to TV vs. what was allocated to digital, we already know the volume of TV ads was astronomical.
From the start of the ’18 cycle through the end of October, more than 3.6 million ads had aired in congressional and gubernatorial campaigns across the country, according to tracking from the Wesleyan Media Project. That’s a 59 percent increase over the 2014 midterm cycle.
We also know many practitioners weren’t thrilled with the spending breakdown, particularly on the left where digital strategists repeatedly expressed concern throughout the cycle that Republican candidates were ahead in terms of media mix.
“We’re still seeing media mixes that do not reflect where people spend their time and how they consume media,” DSPolitical’s Mark Jablonowski recently told AdExchanger. “Most candidates have a media plan similar to what we saw in 2016 or 2014.”
So what changes heading into the 2020 cycle? How much longer will digital strategists be fighting the same battle vis-a-vis traditional media and integrating digital into a campaign plan from day one?
Armed with fresh evidence from the midterm cycle, expect strategists to make the case even more forcefully as viewing patterns continue to shift ahead of 2020.
How will digital practitioners counter further regulatory attempts by state lawmakers?
New rules on digital ad disclosure caused significant headaches for digital strategists and individual campaigns this year, especially in states like Maryland and Washington. Those are two places where legislators passed some of the most stringent online disclosure rules. The result: big increases in legal costs and a lot of confusion over compliance.
“To be clear, few in our space object to filing a special form or submitting extra reporting, but it is my belief that increased costs for smaller shops will hurt business and compliance,” Jordan Lieberman of a4 media wrote in C&E. “In the absence of FEC or congressional action, digital oversight will get worse and you’ll see major platforms pull out of other states and smaller consultants without legal resources risk prosecution in the next campaign cycle.”
So what states are next and how effectively can industry professionals counter? According to Adav Noti of the Campaign Legal Center, there could be 10 or more states debating similar legislation in 2019. The likes of Hawaii, California, and Connecticut already started the process in some form during the previous legislative session. And there will be more states to move in the early part of next year.
The good news is that industry professionals have gotten more organized over the past three months and are already communicating with lawmakers at the state level who are eyeing increased regulation. We’ll be watching the process closely in 2019.
What will the digital landscape look like in the 2020 cycle?
One thing about the 2020 presidential cycle is certain: plenty of money will be raised and spent in the Democratic primary. Just lots and lots of money. And it’s all likely to start very soon.
Several rumored Democratic candidates already have robust fundraising bases (Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, even Beto O’Rourke). So not only will the primary be a competitive one, it’s quite easy to see how three or more, extremely well-funded Democrats, end up battling it out for the nomination while building sizable organizations across multiple states.
Presidential races are already hotbeds of digital campaign innovation. This just ups the likelihood that one or more campaigns really move the ball forward during the primary.
But with opportunity comes challenges, and those will be numerous next cycle. One thing, in particular, to watch for: How quickly can campaigns adapt to a more challenging cybersecurity environment? And how will they counter advancements in deep fake technology? Left unchecked it’s something that could play a destructive role in 2020.