Democrats Rethink Digital Ahead of 2018

After Brad Parscale’s big digital win for Donald Trump, Democrats look to revamp their own playbook.

AP Photo/Noah Berger
Danielle Bernstein
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Danielle Bernstein
Oct. 17, 2017, 8 p.m.

Democrats are hesitant to credit President Trump’s campaign with revolutionizing digital campaign tools, but the party is nonetheless revamping its own online strategies ahead of the midterms and the next presidential election.

Trump digital strategist Brad Parscale has garnered national headlines and even a 60 Minutes profile this month delving into his efforts, which he said helped Trump win key states like Michigan and Wisconsin. The Trump campaign paid Parscale’s firm $94 million to buy digital ads.

Still, Democratic strategists pointed out that elements of his strategy, including texting and multivariate image testing, have been in play for several presidential cycles. The difference was in Trump’s overall campaign strategy, not necessarily digital, strategists contend.

“It’s not like they created the idea of digital organizing, paid digital advertising, acquisition, or persuasion, sort of like the [Howard] Dean campaign or the Obama campaign,” said Ryan Morgan, CEO of Veracity Media, a digital strategy firm that rolled out Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices book tour, the precursor to her campaign. “They really just capitalized on it very well.”

Matt Compton, a strategist at Blue State Digital who was the deputy digital director for Clinton’s campaign, cited the Democratic nominee’s superior online fundraising as an example of how Republicans were less effective than Democrats in 2016.

But there is one area in which Democrats seem to agree the Republican playbook paid off: budget allocation for digital advertising.

For competitive House races, Republican groups like the Congressional Leadership Fund spent more than 25 percent of their persuasion-media budgets on digital, compared with 4 percent for some Democratic groups, one Bully Pulpit Interactive report found. (BPI, a consulting group, worked on both of Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns.)

“In general, Republicans had their mandate at the start of the cycle that they wanted to spend more money on digital relative to other forms of media that they had, and that message clearly made its way down-ballot,” said BPI managing director Mike Schneider. “If you look at some of the spending reports for various House and Senate races, it’s very clear that Republicans dramatically outspent Democrats not just in dollar figures, which we expect traditionally, but in percentage of media and digital versus elsewhere.”

Democratic strategists vary in the degree to which they want to rely on digital advertising—it’s in part a generational debate, and one that never really took off because Dean’s and Obama’s past successes prompted Democrats to believe their existing digital strategies would still be effective in 2016. But the 2016 loss has seemed to minimize the value of tradition.

Groups like EMILY’s List and Priorities USA Action have kicked off major digital ad buys, including sponsored content aimed at millennials on sites like BuzzFeed and Elite Daily. And some groups are seeking to merge otherwise unrelated elements of advertising, such as gross rating points—which measure TV impact—and digital reach and impressions, Schneider said. Morgan pointed out that TV-based media firms are also starting to move toward digital advertising.

But revamping doesn’t necessarily mean pulling from Parscale, who operated largely outside of the confines of the Republican National Committee, an unusual move for a party nominee’s campaign. (This also means some of the Trump campaign’s insights may not make it back to the RNC for the 2018 cycle, one strategist pointed out.)

Along with several other factors, such as free media and Russian intervention in the election, the Trump campaign’s success came from its electoral strategy, Democrats suggested.

“The Clinton campaign thought that they were going to win in a landslide, so they tried to broaden the electorate,” Morgan said. The Trump campaign, on the other hand, focused its energy on swing states. “Instead of trying to run up the score in swing congressional districts to get someone down-ballot elected, they focused exclusively on the states that they needed for the Electoral College.”

In those states, Parscale maintained an internal database of identity profiles called Project Alamo, something that was crucial to one of his primary tactics: the use of Facebook and Instagram to promote digital voter suppression. On those platforms, Parscale flooded voters including young women and African-Americans, groups that were more likely to flock to the Democratic nominee, with negative ads about Clinton in the hopes that they would stay home on Election Day, which many did.

Democrats are reluctant to enact a policy they see as antithetical to their mission; instead, they hope to use persuasion and acquisition advertising to increase voter turnout as Republicans try to depress it.

“When more people participate, Democrats are more likely to win,” Compton said.

Instead of looking to Republicans, some consulting groups may turn to the private sector.

“There’s a lot to learn from what the private sector is doing, in that they invest very heavily in digital media for branding awareness and persuasion,” Schneider said. “On the political side, most of the digital-media investment is still really in list-building, activation, acquiring donors, which is certainly a place where we should continue to invest. But I think we need to follow the private sector’s lead in broadening to more branding and persuasion.”

“The digital of 2008 is not the digital of 2017 and beyond,” Morgan said.

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