Tick Tock: Political Digital Persistence

It is now the second week of August, 91 days before the 2014 mid-term elections. This election cycle will determine 38 governorships (eight of which are considered toss-ups). All 435 House seats are obviously on the ballot but only 81 contests are actually competitive and just 15 or so are currently viewed as vulnerable to an upset. 

It’s the Senate that is considered the prime battleground. Sixteen races are considered competitive, but with six current Democratic and two Republican seats considered toss-ups, there is the potential for a change of control in the Senate.

What do the candidates in all these competitive and toss-up races have in common? The need to build name recognition, move voters that are leaners into a candidate’s camp, and generate enthusiasm for an eventual GOTV push. There will always be a place in the discussion of how a candidate’s position on issues or their debate performance will eventually drive success, but in this mid-term election there is also a “digital persistence” factor that comes into play and shouldn’t be overlooked. 

What is political digital persistence? Put simply, it is the micro-targeting and consistent engagement with target voters through messaging in the online channels. Political digital persistence is about reaching the right voters as often as possible. Through a combination of demographics, voter histories and the ability to digitally target households and neighborhoods, candidates can deliver carefully crafted messages to any constituent group including women, Hispanics, retirees, or veterans. By applying digital micro-targeting, a candidate’s online display ads or pre-roll advertising can be presented in the context of the issues and priorities that matter most to each voter. Employing these methods frequently and persistently reinforces the candidate name recognition, clarifies issues for the margin of error voter, and allows for substantive engagement with new voters.

In dealing with dozens of candidates since 2008, it is clear to me that by now most gubernatorial, House and Senate candidates have reached the point where they have a very good handle on the “inside the war room” part of politics. They are adept at building spreadsheets that project their voting base, determine activism quotients, and calculate voters’ potential for donations. The vote count necessary to win is understood, in turn driving the volume of call center outreach, the nature and frequency of email blasts and even television buys over the course of the campaign

The downside of “inside the war room” politics lies in its inability to reach beyond a candidate’s base. The challenge is connecting with the margin-of-error voters and the steady march of new voters coming to the polls. Reaching and persuading these new voters requires deep and meaningful engagement in state and district races. If a campaign is designed to focus on the converted, the candidate and staff will inevitably be surprised by the number of voters who don’t follow through and cast a ballot, change their minds, or most importantly, weren’t accounted for on the spreadsheet. (Look no further than the Romney 2012 polling for an example.) 

Now, I recognize that it’s very unlikely that any candidate or any campaign manager is going to alter their carefully crafted strategic plan at this stage of these mid-term elections. The stock response from many campaigns to the challenge of reaching on the margin and new voters is a heavy television spending in the final days leading up to an election. In the era of digital politics, this is wishful thinking.

Consider this: according to Nielsen, the number of daily viewers for all of television news shows is approximately 25 million people. Lets do a little math, shall we? Voter turnout for the 2010 midterms was 40.7%. Using that as a benchmark, the 25 million daily news viewers represent only 28.2% of the estimated 88.7 million people who voted in the 2010 midterms. Now consider the fact that TV audiences skew older, are often comprised of people with fixed political views and don’t tend to line up well with margin or new voters, and the math becomes very ugly very quickly. Political digital persistence offers a viable and effective alternative for reaching those voters not represented by the traditional TV audience. 

By its very design, political digital persistence is able to reach every voter, the converted as well as first-timers and those occupying the margin of error. It solidifies name recognition and candidate positioning. Unlike television spots that cost thousands to produce and rapidly burn through mid-term budgets, political digital persistence provides a steady drumbeat that supports targeted unique user engagement beyond the tradition political formula.

You can almost hear the pushback from the campaigns: “But we’re on Facebook and we bought keywords.” Congratulations, but that isn’t going to cut it. Running a gubernatorial campaign for two years and collecting 34,000 Facebook friends won’t impact the results in one medium size town in most states. And keywords are great for connecting with people who are looking for you, but they don’t really help a campaign looking to broaden its voter base. 

There is a reason that consumer products companies invest up to 30% of their marketing budgets online. Candidates and their campaign teams need to realize what the big brands have accepted; that digital persistence is a formula that delivers unique user reach and scale when it matters. Of course, every campaign should be using Facebook and keywords to reach out and inform their base – but with 90 days until Election Day and so many races still up in the air, it’s time to employ voter outreach that delivers both reach and scale.

The good news is that, compared to television, digital persistence is a bargain. Each uniquely targeted voter impression can cost less than a penny, which means that just 5 or 10% of a typical campaign’s TV budget can be used to reach millions of voters multiple times online. Digital advertising is just an extension of a campaign’s current creative assets. Using these assets (or purpose-built ones) in a digitally persistent way can be done in as little as a few days. And these types of digital outreach can also serve as a mechanism for on-demand polling of specific constituencies at a low cost. (More on this in a future article.) 

A lot is at stake in these mid-term elections. Thoughtful candidates and campaigns should recognize that they have another way to reach all voters with their message. They can now turn on a dime and reach out to those constituents who they otherwise might have missed or never fully engaged. Digital persistence can be a game-changer – but the clock is ticking.

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