If presidential races are campaign industry test kitchens, some traditional practices just failed a big examination.
Paid media and field came up short Tuesday night as the Democratic presidential primary race seemed to turn on the power of earned media and, perhaps to some degree, search as Google saw a spike in Joe Biden's results following his win in South Carolina on Saturday. Since then, he’s dominated media coverage of the race with his endorsement pickups.
That coverage on Tuesday collided with his rival campaigns who had seemingly done all the basics right but put up poor performances.
Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both have robust field programs, but the former failed to win even her home state in the Super Tuesday vote while Sanders fell short in states where he was polling well, spent big on TV and had a field operation.
Biden didn’t make any campaign stops in Massachusetts, yet he was able to overcome the focus placed on the contest by both Sanders and home-state senator Warren. In Minnesota, a Biden operation was entirely nonexistent. Not only did the former vice president not campaign in the state, he didn’t even have any staff on the ground.
Take Texas, where Sanders opened five field offices in February to media fanfare. While his organizers worked the ground, his campaign hit the San Antonio and Austin media markets hard, running the largest percentage of candidate ads in the markets after Mike Bloomberg, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.
Still, Sanders lost to Biden in Texas by nearly four points, despite Biden not running ads and having less of a field presence by at least one office. Bloomberg, by comparison, had 19 offices and 160 staffers in the state.
Bloomberg’s campaign now rivals Tom Steyer for the inefficiency of its dollar-to-vote ratio. His gamble on an ad and field blitz across Super Tuesday states only brought a win in American Samoa. In total, he picked up 44 convention delegates on the night before dropping out on Wednesday morning and endorsing Biden.
Warren’s campaign had a similar disconnect between its field effort, which includes a unionized staff of some 1,000 spread across the country, and the results Tuesday. But reports have pointed to her messaging and consistency as a candidate as the reasons why that operation failed to notch wins.
Ultimately, the question isn't whether a robust field program and a focus on paid media actually make sense for campaigns. Those elements are critical and are the hallmarks of well-rounded campaigns. But earned media has always been a critical element of presidential primary campaigns, especially when the calendar is shortened. And post-2016, campaigns have good reason to be thinking more about how to maximize earned media.
Now, Democratic consultants may also see a digital silver lining in Biden’s wins Tuesday. Other than Warren and President Trump, he allocated the highest percentage (54.1%) of his media budget to digital, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. Sanders, meanwhile, had digital as 36.6 percent of his media mix.
That’s one area where practitioners see campaigns needing to divert even more resources. With the ongoing concern about the novel coronavirus outbreak, rallies and large campaign events may get put on hold or have their frequency scaled back. That means campaigns will need to put more money into platforms like Facebook for donor and email acquisitions.
“I definitely suspect as coronavirus spreads and people stop doing rallies ad numbers will skyrocket,” said Beth Becker, a Democratic digital consultant. “Its gonna be ugly.”
That scenario could amplify the challenge that down-ballot campaigns have faced this cycle as digital ad prices have risen as money from Bloomberg and Steyer poured into the online ecosystem.
“Careful digital targeting can help candidates for state legislature or city council make the most of their paid-media dollars, but it won’t help much if Mike’s bought up most of the inventory,” C&E columnist Colin Delany wrote this week.