Biden, Beto, Warren and Harris. Kirsten, Bernie, Cory and Julián. The list of Democrats running for president will likely run into the dozens. Except for a handful of media stars, how can any of them stand out from the pack?
One complication: early voting may limit the role states like Iowa have played in weeding out the also-rans in the past. This time around, voters in California may start sending in their ballots before New Hampshire holds a primary.
TV may not help generate as much attention as usual either since ad inventory will likely disappear fast. With so many candidates clamoring for notice, 15-second spots will likely blend into a flag-filled blur anyway.
How can Democratic candidates connect with enough voters to survive the initial winnowing of the field? One option: let the voters do the work for them, by harnessing the power of self-organizing. Democrats are primed for it, too, since over the last few years, millions of individual activists have taken responsibility for creating the change they want to see in the world. The trend dates back at least as far back as Obama's first campaign and the Tea Party response, but it's truly bloomed since Trump's election two years ago.
Think of the Parkland students crossing the country to work for gun control, or the thousands of Indivisible chapters that have sprung up spontaneously in all fifty states, or the Democratic women organizing in secret in deep Red America. The right gets in on the action sometimes, as in that recent border-wall crowdfunding campaign, but the real passion has been on the Democrats' side since 2016. If I were running for president, one of my first priorities would be to create a system to harness it.
What would a campaign built around self-organizing look like? A lot like Obama 2008 or Bernie 2016, for one thing. To tap into the passion of Democratic voters, each campaign should create a basic online toolkit to help activists choose activities that work best for them individually. The tools themselves will sound familiar to anyone who's been paying attention to digital politics since Howard Dean's supporters pioneered political Meetups in 2003.
Peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns, house parties, training webinars, and conference calls, virtual phone-banks, email coordination, social media amplification – the list goes on. Now, none of these technologies are new, and all of them still work to help activists spread the word and mobilize their friends and neighbors.
Not that self-organizing replaces traditional field programs. As Obama's team learned in 2008, this cycle's Democratic hopefuls will likely find that self-organizing can create a basic field infrastructure in the months before the professionals parachute in to take over. Rather than supplanting them, amateurs complement the paid staff and give them a posse right from the start. Meanwhile, long before anyone votes in a primary election, activists' friend-to-friend outreach builds name recognition and expands the campaign's network organically.
But before they reach the kind of critical mass that allows for large-scale viral outreach, Democrats should take a lesson from Trump 2016: targeted digital advertising can help them reach voters likely to be receptive to their messages early. Facebook lead-generation ads, Google search ads, and voter-file-targeted banner and video ads can take a campaign from zero to digital hero in a relatively short period of time, assuming that enough seed money is in the bank to pay for the ads before grassroots donations roll in.
Note that Kamala Harris has been spending big on digital acquisition since at least the beginning of 2018, an early investment that will likely pay off big this year. Others will certainly follow her lead if they haven't started already.
On the Republican side, we've heard that Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale intends to build an integrated campaign for 2020, one less focused on Facebook than its 2016 predecessor. He'll start with the sizable supporter list that helped put Trump in the White House last time, and I'd expect his team to try to find creative ways to put them to work shoring up his vote peer-to-peer.
Other Republicans? We'll have to see how the next year pans out — if Trump leaves office early or declines to run again, expect a scramble for support from GOP voters suddenly unmoored. In that case, new candidates would be wise to recruit fast and early and put those people to work contacting their friends. Either way, the voters will have their say, long before Election Day.
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 twenty-two-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.