Why you should care
Because these digital campaign hacks could set the stage for which candidate wins the Democratic primary.
Mayor Pete Buttigieg using Snapchat to hyperlocalize his message to strangely specific demographics. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang giving marching orders to online supporters through Discord and Facebook groups. President Donald Trump, and his Republican allies, streaming their messaging directly to your smart TV or tablet as you idly watch golf.
It isn’t enough anymore to just run Facebook ads or have a trendy Reddit page, à la 2016. Presidential campaigns are increasingly using geolocation strategies to reach supporters with messages tailored to them. They’re reaching deeper depths of Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat than previous generations of contenders have. And some are using emerging platforms like Discord — a streaming service more typically used by video gamers — to gamify campaigning. This type of microtargeting could make all the difference in a crowded, tight election. It’s creating a scramble as candidates on both sides of the partisan divide aim to meet people exactly where they’re at in ways previously unimaginable. But will such strategies last as tech giants Google and Facebook play with restricting political advertising on their platforms?
When Yang wants to push a message, he doesn’t rely solely on an email to supporters or shelling out thousands of dollars on Facebook ads. The tech entrepreneur has been one of the lowest digital spenders in his ascent to the top seven Democrats running for president.
the more attention we’re getting, the deeper into some of these communities our message is getting heard.
Rebecca Pearcey, elizabeth warren’s national political director
That’s partly because Yang has other tools. With Twitter handles like @YangGangHub, his team caused at least four hashtags to trend in September, including #TrumpFearsYang and #YangMediaBlackout. “This is legitimately people who felt they had no say … feeling like they can affect things in a much larger way,” says Scott Santens, a universal basic income expert and Yang supporter. “There is this general feeling of empowerment that’s exciting people.”
While others have used Facebook groups before, the Yang Gang weaponizes them — as well as Discord — to directly petition followers to phone bank, tweet campaign platforms and recruit members. Their program rewards volunteers with “units” that help them track their progress in helping elect Yang as president, gamifying the process.
Snapchat is being used in new ways too. Four years ago, it was mostly a way to purchase trendy filters for a political event, like the Republican and Democratic conventions. Now, it’s an arena for hypertargeted ad-making, with a robust fact-checking network soon to go along with it, its CEO announced earlier this week.
Buttigieg has run Snaps targeting users in Iowa and New Hampshire who are 18 or older and classified as “collegiates, green living enthusiasts or political news watchers.” Other candidates are ramping up their use of the platform, even if for more-basic messaging. Trump, who has outspent all Democrats on Snapchat this year with about $40,000 in advertisements as of late September, used the younger-trending platform to tout his work passing the First Step Act criminal justice reform law last year.
Next, we’ll see Over-the-Top TV outreach, predicts GOP digital strategist Adam Meldrum, through ads delivered to streaming apps on smart TVs and smartphones, from YouTube and ESPN to the CBS News and Golf Channel apps. It is “the bridge between TV and online video: cord cutters,” says Meldrum, who has advised top Republicans and the Republican National Committee. As 2012 became known as the Twitter election, 2020 could be when these platforms disproportionately influence the electorate.
To be clear, candidates are still spending more on traditional television or Facebook ad spends. “You have to navigate between not chasing the shiny object every year — there were people who bought social media strategies around Vine,” Meldrum warns, referring to the seven-second video platform that once seemed like a competitor to Instagram but collapsed in 2016. Meanwhile, Google announced yesterday it will limit political advertising targeting, and Facebook is reportedly considering a similar shift amid accusations that the platforms don’t properly restrict the spread of misinformation.
Yet those platforms can still be used in organic ways that aren’t as affected by advertising restrictions. The top 10 presidential Facebook groups include seven groups backing Sen. Bernie Sanders, two supporting Sen. Elizabeth Warren and one backing Yang. Extremely targeted Facebook groups, with smaller followings, are emerging as hotbeds for community organizing, from “Upstate SC for Warren” to “Students for Pete.”
What’s more, localized activity in the digital realm is increasingly manifesting itself with localization in the physical world. The two go hand in hand for Warren, whose team has largely been credited with hiring staffers more aggressively than any other campaign and whose volunteers have been known to put stickers on event attendees showing which ones haven’t had their emails taken down yet. “We were able to staff up very, very early,” says Warren’s national political director, Rebecca Pearcey, and “the more attention we’re getting, the deeper into some of these communities our message is getting heard.”
Nobody typifies that hand-in-hand, digital-physical strategy better than Trump, whose campaign tends to center on building up its already massive campaign fundraising email list (last year it was reportedly nearly 20 million people). And the focus on meeting people in their own communities is seen in his rally schedule, says Mark Jefferson, head of the Wisconsin Republican Party.
“He’s been to Green Bay, Eau Claire, Wausau area — and he packs 5,000, 10,000 people into an airport or arena,” Jefferson says. The value extends far beyond such relatively atypical and rural campaign areas compared with the spots one would expect an electioneering president to visit. “He gets all of those names, and now we have leads, and we can build community teams,” says Jefferson.
When such political disparates as Warren and Trump are both adopting localization tactics, you can guess the strategy is working. The “buy local” trend is all the rage in politics too — only now campaigns don’t just want to be on your living-room TV but also on the smartphone and tablet in your lap.