Mobilizing The Vote: The Post-TV Campaign

As political operatives ramp up for the 2014 interim contests this year and look forward to 2016, the same cross-screen migration challenging all marketers is now facing the political arena. How voters get their information and make decisions is under renewed scrutiny as one of the bulwarks of political spend, TV, appears somewhat diminished in a multi-screen world. To port over the au courant  terminology of product marketing, what is the “voter journey” now that tablets and smartphones are not only sources of news and information but also video screens that supplant almighty TV?

That is the question behind the new survey of 800 likely voters by Public Opinion Strategies and Global Strategy Group, who also worked with liberal campaign consultancy Well & Lighthouse, conservative marketer Targeted Victory, as well as Google. Most of these companies, by the way, will be at the March 18 Marketing Politics event MediaPost is holding in Washington, DC.

In this third survey of voters’ media habits the groups have conducted in the past four years, they conclude that “there is no doubt that live TV is losing ground to new technologies.” At core this is unremarkable. It would be surprising if this weren’t the case among voters, since it seems true in most metrics we have been seeing. Welcome to the on-demand world, politicos.

But of course for political campaigns, this shift forces a rethink of media spend, which even when more tightly targeted relies heavily on broadcast. As is now legend in the field, Team Obama changed the campaign game in 2008 and 2012 with deft use of data analytics to find pockets of potential voters to target with well-contoured messaging. But a lot of that data was aimed at segmenting TV and radio audiences for broadcast and cable buys, not necessarily at digital advertising.

In researching and building the agenda for the upcoming DC show I consulted veterans from both Romney and Obama camps. It is clear that the new digital and Big Data disciplines informing campaigns still need to be put into the context of traditional methods. One veteran of Team Obama, for instance, argued to me that Big Data was almost certainly responsible for ferreting out the targets whereby additional media spend helped turn the thousand or so votes that decided the state. But, he also was quick to say, those 2,000 or so votes would have been irrelevant without the full base of votes turned out often by more traditional means. Members of Team Romney recall the internal struggles, not exclusive to their campaign, between digital and TV teams over where the money was best spent when and where in the cycle. As campaigns wind down, regardless of the case made by data mining and online efforts, the money gushes to the one medium to which all others bow -- TV.

This latest survey seems to make the case for much more diffuse strategies in the coming campaign. Looking at the media habits of 800 likely voters, the researchers conclude that “for political campaigns, reaching younger, more diverse, swing voters through live TV advertising alone is problematic.” Since its last survey the shift away from live TV is undeniable, as other sources of online access and time-shifted programming now dominate. This is at least as dramatic a shift for political media spenders as was the arrival of cable TV more than three decades ago. While 70% of people still watch some live TV in a given week, the share of people also getting TV from laptop or PC has escalated from 40% to 46%, DVD viewing has declined and time-shifted TV viewing has gone up at about the same levels as online TV. In other words, time-sensitive advertising usually attached to political campaigns has a much narrower TV target. When you get below the age of 34, more than 40% of voters say that excluding sports, they have not even watched live TV in the last week.

Where is it going? Streams to set-top boxes and devices, mainly. The share of people using any or all three of these channels since 2011 to watch TV content has gone from low double digits (nil for tablets) to about a quarter of likely voters in January of this year. Moreover, second screening is being done often by 20% of votes and occasionally by 21%. About half of voters have been to YouTube in the last week on one screen or another. And whereas 57% of voters in 2011 cited Live TV as their primary source for video content, in 2014 that has dropped to 48%. The second-most-cited (19%) is time-shifted TV, and more than half of viewers say they always skip commercials on their DVRs. And in total, non live TV sources now occupy 12.1 hours a week of video consumption, compared to 10.2 hours.  

It is not just an age thing. The flight from live TV to other video sources is especially strong among key swing populations like Independents, self-declared moderate and Hispanic voters, where a third or more are not watching live TV in a given week.

If political operatives are looking to swing elections in the closing days of Campaign 2014 and 2016, they will need to think beyond turning the firehose of money onto TV screens. Although part of the genius of Team Obama's Big Data tactics was its ability to identify granular TV audiences, those viewers in 2014 and 2016 may not be there to watch not matter how accurate the targeting.    

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