Election 2020: boots on the ground & bits in the cloud

I’m getting excited about the election. I feel my pulse get a tiny bit faster watching political ads, getting text messages, seeing people volunteer. It feels “American” even though I know we don’t always live up to our ideals. Not all the Founders of the United States even wanted a popular vote. “If elections were open to all classes of people, the property of landed proprietors would be insecure,” James Madison feared during a secret debate in 1787. But he didn’t prevail over his colleagues who subscribed to the view of Thomas Paine, the conscience of the Founders if not fully counted among them. Paine wrote: “The right of voting for representatives is the primary right by which other rights are protected. To take away this right is to reduce a man to slavery, for slavery consists in being subject to the will of another, and he that has not a vote in the election of representatives is in this case.” 

Today, candidates have to have both a ground game and a digital game. You can judge a ground game by the number of (and location of) campaign offices. Buttigieg and Warren lead in this metric. Or you can count the number of volunteers a candidate has. Bernie has 25,000 in Iowa alone, an impressive number working on those all-important Caucuses. And last February the campaign announced that “more than one million people have now volunteered to support the senator’s 2020 bid.” Or more precisely, to do volunteer work to support the campaign. The campaign has well over 100,000 active supporters in Pennsylvania, calling across the state and organizing in cities like Pittsburgh.

Speaking of Iowa, and as impressive as Bernie’s campaign is doing there with volunteers, Joshua Barr at 538 recently posted a great analysis comparing Barack Obama’s fieldwork in Iowa to all of the current Democratic contenders and finding that none of them match Obama’s 2008 Iowa ground game. The campaign had field offices in the smallest of towns and rural counties. One wonders how important the candidates feel Iowa is in 2020, although the top tier seem very invested in it. 

There’s no doubt that Bernie will have boatloads of volunteers, and one could easily see the scenario where he has more than any other candidate. But “a million” sign-ups might mean only a fraction of actual volunteers showing up—a calculation that all campaign volunteer coordinators have baked into their analysis of what can be done. Volunteers can be fickle and unreliable. But many hands make light work, and operations that make volunteers feel important and appreciated will keep enough of them coming back that a lot of campaign work can be done. 

The Sanders campaign is on to something, as a recent Huff Post piece describes: they have a vision and a method. They empower people to host house parties and deliver stories, they use a lot of texting, the campaign has created “an infrastructure to facilitate the work of its most dedicated supporters.” More and more campaigns that are investing in this outreach, especially via SMS messages, are using vendors like our client Accurate Append, an email, and phone contact data quality vendor, to acquire those mobile numbers.  

Far more money is being spent on digital advertising. It’s not just for the weird world of mass microtargeting either. Digital ads can also test campaign messages, which can then be transposed into television advertising, which still dominates the elections media, particularly in the two months before election day. But despite that TV focus, by “September, presidential hopefuls had cumulatively spent $60.9 million on Facebook and Google ads compared to $11.4 million on television ads, according to an analysis by the Wesleyan Media Project.” Voters also give feedback online. Data, and lately big data, have played a role in processing strategies from social media engagement.

All of this emerged from Barack Obama’s use of Facebook ads in 2008—what people in the field call a “turning point.” One expert “predicts that $6 billion will be spent on paid advertising during the 2020 election” with most ultimately going to broadcast and cable television, but at least $1.2 billion on digital ads. 

It’s when the two types of campaigning are combined in large order that you know a candidate is serious. The Republicans are often written off as lacking ground games, but that accusation would be laughable in 2020. Whatever Trump’s approval numbers, and whatever support he may have shedded from those who did not know what to expect from him, there’s no doubt that his supporters will make every effort to be organized and proactive; now they have a president to defend. And a portion of the billionaire class has the money to spend. 

In Michigan, “Republican President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is training volunteers for what his national press secretary described as the most advanced ground game in modern political history.” If Trump wins Michigan, well, it’s a ballgame at that point. The Michigan Republican Party is facilitating national training sessions, and the campaign is distributing outreach tools to the states. But the RNC also has a digital game that it’s poured $300 million into since 2014. We know the Trump campaign will pay trolls and botmakers and all kinds of craftsmen for social media engagement. 

So these are the thoughts that keep me alert to news of both grassroots campaigning and digital work, including digital shenanigans that make me cringe. The game is afoot, and there will be unprecedented human and monetary capital invested in its outcome. I’m not the only person who feels oddly, perhaps ironically, patriotic about it. In an essay called “Democratic Vistas,” Walt Whitman wrote: “I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in humankind, than a well-contested American national election.” Now, I can think of a few grander exercises or more fun ones at least, but there is certainly some humanist pride in the whole enterprise, as corrupted and malleable as it sometimes seems.