Why you should care

Because he could be the invisible hand behind the next breakout Republican.

Chatbots getting out the vote, pushing donations, asking questions and responding to people like a savvy Microsoft Clippy for political candidates. Social listening tools trawling the web like the world’s biggest eavesdroppers, tracking when and where a candidate is heard or talked about. Ad campaigns targeting smartphone apps and TV streamers like Roku and Amazon Fire, bypassing traditional outlets for cord cutters.

These are the next frontiers for political candidates in their eternal quest to wring every last vote from the electorate. “Campaigns need to tell a story,” says Adam Meldrum, the 36-year-old digital campaign strategist, and he’s the one communicating those stories in new and nimble ways. The stakes are huge ahead of the 2020 elections, as he works to elect Republicans from the top of the ballot down.

Founder of and managing partner at AdVictory, Meldrum has produced award-winning work with candidates including Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse. “With Sasse, [Meldrum] kind of invented that whole digital piece from scratch,” says veteran GOP ad-maker Fred Davis, noting that Sasse, a former college president, was largely unknown and started off down 36 percentage points in the first primary election poll. Meldrum was also named a 2018 rising star by Campaigns & Elections magazine for being “the go-to” on understanding the role of chatbots and artificial intelligence in campaigns. 

While most interactions with campaigns can feel static, Meldrum imagines a dynamic experience that goes beyond a “glorified marketing site.”

Meldrum’s creative approaches will likely be felt at the Republican National Committee, a regular client, as well as in numerous Senate and governor races nationwide in 2020. And he may even play a role in President Trump’s re-election, with close ties to digital gurus like John Yob and Ethan Elion who helped put Trump over the finish line four years ago.

Right now, though, he’s staying mum on any such plans. Sitting in his townhouse office near Union Station in Washington, D.C., Meldrum reflects on his path from rebellious Michigan high school jock (soccer, lacrosse) and dedicated Phish head since middle school (he’s been to more than 100 shows and has a Grateful Dead lightning bolt engraved on his wedding ring) to founder of a conservative political ad operation — one that Federal Election Commission records show takes in millions of dollars annually. With all those ad buys, “it’s kind of like the stock market,” Meldrum says. “You have numbers floating around in your head — is something overfunded, underfunded?”

 

The details keep Meldrum up at night but also excite him. He wants to reach people on WatchESPN or Golf Channel apps, to use chatbots on Facebook Messenger or campaign websites to create a more natural relationship with voters. “We are just scraping the surface,” he says. While most interactions with campaigns can feel static, Meldrum imagines a dynamic experience that goes beyond a “glorified marketing site.” After being interviewed, he follows up with pages of notes, theories, links to other articles he feels show what the future offers. “There is an enthusiasm he has,” Davis says.  

While past elections have seen plenty of digital consulting snake oil salesmen, strategists like Meldrum are also gaining more influence than ever. Look at Trump, who selected his 2016 digital media director Brad Parscale to lead his entire 2020 re-elect, and then to Priorities USA, the top Democratic super PAC that elevated Danielle Butterfield from head of digital operations to overseeing all paid media — a “watershed moment,” as Politico called it. 

Chatbots are the future, particularly as the government may crack down on voter texting campaigns, says Douglas Drouillard, a tech entrepreneur who worked with Meldrum on former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s successful 2014 campaign. For Meldrum and other digital strategists, the ability to quantify their impact is becoming more and more valuable. “You ask the TV guys how the ads did, and they say, ‘I don’t know, pretty well … If you want to find out, pay us $150,000 and we’ll do a poll for you,’” Drouillard says. 

To be clear, Meldrum isn’t the goose laying the golden eggs. He has worked for losing campaigns, such as Gov. Bruce Rauner’s failed re-election bid in Illinois and a super PAC supporting New Jersey Senate candidate Bob Hugin last election cycle. And not all of his tactics are clear winners. Drouillard is skeptical about machine learning: “The amount of data you would need for that is garbage in, garbage out.” And he is less bullish on Smart TV outreach: “At the end of the day, do you have enough people in that bucket?” Meldrum says the cord-cutting audience is growing, plus it holds other advantages. “There is less noise to compete with,” he says.

Meldrum isn’t afraid of failure or criticism, having experienced plenty of both during his first major race as a press aide for John McCain. Joining the national staff in the summer of 2007 amid budget cuts and staff reductions, Meldrum was just a year removed from graduating with a political science degree from Michigan State — a major he switched to after hearing former diplomat Joe Wilson speak following the scandalous outing of his wife, Valerie Plame, as a CIA agent. Soon Meldrum was taking part in one of the greatest turnarounds in presidential history, as McCain earned the GOP nomination. 

The lesson, Meldrum says, is that you’re “never out of it.” But the impact of McCain’s campaign was more personal than the bromide: “It gave me the bug, and I’ve been stuck with it ever since.” Now the bug has evolved into a bot, and as the 2020 campaign accelerates it’s bound to be headed your way. 

OZY’s 5 Questions with Adam Meldrum

  • What’s the last book you finished? Following the Equator by Mark Twain. He’s sarcastic and dry, witty and brilliant. 
  • What do you worry about? Ads are funny things. It’s kind of like the stock market. You have all these ads running for clients and they never shut off. You have numbers floating around in your head — is something over-funded, under-funded? Lots of moving parts. All of those details are really stressful. They keep me up at night. 
  • What’s the one thing you can’t live without? My wife, Christina. 
  • Who’s your hero? Ambassador Ron Weiser was definitely a mentor. Getting to know Sen. John McCain a little bit — learned a lot there. Jerry Garcia. … My dad has the most honesty, integrity and patience of anyone I know. 
  • What’s one item on your bucket list? To own a bar. I always think about having it in East Lansing, my college town.

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