Lessons From 2018: Campaign Tactics Edition

Yes, we know, it’s 2020 for everyone in politics. But before we rise from our armchairs and really get down in the trenches, let’s take a few minutes to consider how political campaigns have changed.

The 2018 cycle was a watershed year for new online and digitally-based tactics that worked surprisingly well. We think last year will be seen one where campaigns became less hierarchical, more concentrated on field and direct outreach not on TV and, as a result, more diverse and ultimately less expensive.

Election Day Can Last A Month – or Longer

For those of us in California, this has been true for a while: You vote when you can, where you can, via the method that best suits you. Plenty of 2018 races weren’t decided until all the early ballots were counted – some weeks after the election.

Early voting in person, voting by mail and a new policy of mailing ballots to all registered voters, is making election day a process, not an event. Even New York state, long a hold-out on these matters, has changed its laws.

So last minute media spends, especially on TV, are becoming less effective. They’re talking to people who have already voted. Longer-range campaigns, over weeks and days are the new normal. That’s why we’re seeing more ‘flat’ campaigns that are less centered on paid TV and more on outreach and field. It takes time to build a digital message, especially with elections lasting for weeks, not a days.

Campaigns Became Less Hierarchical

The ultimate in flattened campaigns was certainly the Beto O’Rouke’s run against Sen. Ted Cruz. Ultimately unsuccessful – but by far less than anticipated – O’Rourke ran a campaign with several unique features.

He didn’t use seasoned campaign professionals. He didn’t rely on lists of known voters to man and support and donate to the campaign and he made person-to-person outreach – live and virtual – a cornerstone of his campaign. Oh, and he built a list of supporters in and outside of Texas that’s the envy of pretty much anyone running for president. Politico Magazine has a run-down of what O’Rourke’s folks did that’s well worth reading.

O’Rourke wasn’t the only one. The early forerunner here is New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who in shocking upset unseated Democrat Joe Crowley from a historically safe seat in The Bronx.

Like many early 2018 primacy candidates, Ocasio-Cortez used a combination of field and social media-enabled outreach to talk to voters in her district. She didn’t spend a lot of money on TV – she didn’t have it.

Instead, she had a compelling message and she used the communication technology that she believed was popular in her district to talk to voters. That theme and those techniques were repeated in “upset” after “upset” across the country as younger candidates used what they knew, not what they were told had “always worked”.

Can this work for a national race? Not all of it, certainly. But some – oh, yes.

Women Ran as People, Not Barbie Dolls. And They Won.

One of the most striking changes in 2018 were the candidates’ approaches to media and messaging – especially women.Women campaigned with babies on hips, mussed hair and no make-up, in jeans and flats, not power suits and sensible heels.

THIS is how how social media is changing politics. The re-imaging of candidates as people you see every day – in person and online – not unreachable icons beamed into your living room in a :30 with a deep baritone voice over to give them “credibility”. Instead of one TV ad that reaches millions, many candidates relied on quick Instagram or Facebook videos and photos with brief spur-of-the-moment insights and reactions that reach a few but then are multiple by sharing. Some are still at it.

The result: Less of an emphasis on blow-dry perfection, more on the personal and flawed approach. More fun. And yeah, a lot more dancing.

What’s it All Mean? Change, That’s What. And Lots More of It

What’s this mean? First off, campaigns are going to get a lot less expensive. In a lot of markets – New York, California, pretty much any swing state – television is just too expensive for many. Using digital media is cheaper and unlike TV, you can measure its effectiveness – in real time.

Digital media IS effective. Yeah, you’re right, no one’s going to run a presidential campaign with a freeform structure of volunteers coming and going as they wish. And Instagram ain’t gonna get anyone into the White House.

But, as the Trump campaign demonstrated in 2016, no one’s going to win with a TV-only air campaign constructed by a veteran consultant basing messaging on static polling and what “always works.”

Women can run with bad hair, big hips and funky dance steps. Outreach is an iPad and a volunteer with a great attitude and a willingness to work hard and learn. Polling comes from the insights recorded from door-to-door conversations with supporters and opponents.

Which means big-dollar media consultants and their targeted approach are in for a reckoning. In a very short period of time, the diversity of elected officials that the media finds so amazing may be more commonplace – on both sides of the aisle.

Want to learn more about Spot-On sees the evolving campaign environment? Follow us on Twitter where we offer regular updates, commentary and help navigating a dynamic and changing online marketplace.

We used to offer to connect with people on Facebook but no more. For starters, they’re looking at the wrong end of a variety of charges. And, well, we got disgusted with their business practices a while ago. It will take criminal indictments to make political movers and shakers turn totally away from Facebook. But, Spot-On figures that day will be here well before the 2020 elections.

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