With social distancing as the new pandemic normal, U.S. presidential campaigns were faced with an unprecedented situation. They no longer were able to send out organizers and volunteers to connect with potential voters face-to-face. Intimate, high-dollar fundraising events were also out of the question.
“The coronavirus pandemic shifted things overnight. It was a sudden and instant transformation to 100% virtual campaigning, just like the pandemic disrupted everyone else's daily life. The same is true of our campaigns,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist and director of the Center for Campaign Innovation.
“You're just seeing a lot more creativity in terms of how and where the campaigns are finding the voters they need to get their message across to,” said Tara McGowan, CEO and founder of Acronym, a progressive nonprofit organization and head of the political action committee Pacronym.
Politics as entertainment
Most voters are consuming politics as entertainment, Wilson said. Since the start of social distancing orders in March, the Trump campaign launched, on social media such as Facebook and YouTube, a daily talk show-style broadcast with a host and guests.
“That's one of the biggest kind of innovations we've done, are these original seven-nights-a-week online broadcast. We really touch on loads of different dynamics and different messaging opportunities,” Erin Perrine, director of press communications for the Trump campaign, said.
Prominent Republicans and President Donald Trump’s children have been either guests or hosts on these shows. In one program, hosted by Donald Trump Jr., the guest being interviewed was his father, who is running for a second term against the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The Biden campaign is also tapping into social media. Biden is using Instagram for live conversations with social media influencers, celebrities and past Democratic presidential candidates such as entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Last week, Biden raised more than $11 million during a joint virtual fundraising event with former President Barack Obama.
History of digital campaigning
Even as both campaigns experiment with innovative ways to engage potential donors and voters virtually, digital campaigns are not new.
Campaigns have been using the internet since 1996, when presidential candidates developed websites for their campaigns. In 2000, Democrat Al Gore and Republican John McCain facilitated online chats in their presidential bids.
“By 2004, campaigns start(ed) to experiment with blogs and ways to engage and talk with supporters and help organize them,” said Jennifer Stromer-Galley, who studies political campaigns and the use of digital media at Syracuse University.
In 2008, then-Democratic presidential candidate Obama ran a successful campaign, leveraging social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
Since then, U.S. presidential campaigns have continued to experiment with ways to reach potential voters digitally through social media and advertising across different platforms.
“This election cycle, I expect, will be the first election cycle where the campaigns spend more money on digital advertising than on television advertising,” Stromer-Galley said.
Digital advertising, apps and engagement
Digital ads have become another way for campaigns to reach potential voters and build a database of information.
“What the campaign is trying to do is if somebody engages the ad, clicks on the link, goes then to the website, then the first thing the campaign says is, ‘Hey, give me your email address,’ and if you do give your email address, they also then typically ask you for your name and maybe your address or your zip code,” Stromer-Galley said.
“Now they can start to get a profile of who you actually are and then maybe potentially marry that to other data that they have about that email address, whether they've purchased that list or are building it organically.”
With a potential supporter’s profile, campaigns can create ads on Facebook that target a specific demographic of users.
“We run a lot of ads on Facebook continuously,” Perrine, of the Trump campaign, said. “Our digital team says it's like high, high-volume trading on the stock market. We do a bunch of them and those that are doing well, we’ll put more money behind and continue to push those, then others that aren’t, you can pull them off the platform.”
Stromer-Galley said Facebook is a useful tool for campaigns because “Facebook has built an algorithm that predicts if you're politically interested. They have an algorithm that predicts if you're likely a Democratic supporter or a Republican supporter.”
Both campaigns also have apps as ways of engaging supporters, fundraising and encouraging users to conduct peer-to-peer organizing.
“If you're one of my friends, and I know that you've not decided on who you're going to vote for, I can reach out directly to you and say, ‘Hey, here's who I'm supporting, here's what I think matters to you, and I would send you a text message or a Facebook message, however we normally communicate,” said Wilson, the Republican strategist.
To encourage supporters, Trump’s app is gamified, where users can earn points by sharing a post or liking something on social media and making phone calls for the campaign. The points get aggregated, and they can be used to gain early entry into rallies, a discount code for buying campaign merchandise, and with enough points, a supporter can meet Trump.
The reason why campaigns want people to engage digitally is to “glean data, is to get more information on voters, how we can stay in contact with them, because you want these people to become volunteers, you want them to stay engaged and become part of the movement. But, ultimately, we want them to show up on election day,” Perrine said.
“When I downloaded them to my phone, the first thing it asks -- after some personal information about me, like my address, some demographic information, my name, my email address -- it then asks if the app, the mobile app can access my contacts, my photographs,” said Stromer-Galley, who downloaded the Trump and Biden apps for her research.
McGowan, of Pacronym, and her staff are separate from the Biden campaign. They have been running their own digital advertising to support Biden on nontraditional platforms, such as streaming apps like Hulu and Roku, on gaming devices such as Xbox, and on streaming radio, including Pandora and Spotify.
McGowan said ads are no longer one-size-fits-all and have to be tailored for the various unique platforms available to consumers today.
“It's become such, just a diverse media landscape today. So you really have to sort of stay ahead of the curve. You really can't rest on your laurels, and it's a real challenge for campaigns,” she said.
Digital campaign contest
With a bigger war chest, analysts of digital campaigns say Trump started the 2020 digital campaign with a huge advantage, both as the incumbent and with a database of supporters from his last presidential race.
“Trump has been very effective at blurring his presidential messaging and his campaign messaging on Twitter, and so as a journalist or as a member of the public, you can't help but sort of get both at the same time when you're watching him,” Stromer-Galley said.
“Biden doesn't have that advantage because he's not the incumbent. He doesn't have the presidency. He's issuing formal statements. He's doing YouTube videos. He is holding online events, but they don't get the same traction,” she added.
By numbers alone, Trump has more than 82 million followers on Twitter and Biden has just over 6 million. There are close to 30 million followers on Trump’s campaign Facebook page compared to just over 2 million followers on Biden’s Facebook page.
“With online marketing, it's a lot like compound interest. It pays more dividends the sooner you get it into the bank, and so the fact that the Trump campaign was able to get started building their digital infrastructure so early, it gives them a huge head start,” Wilson said.
As an example, he pointed to Trump’s decision to name Brad Pascale, his 2016 digital strategist, as his 2020 campaign manager as a sign that Trump understands the importance of having a strong digital presence in a campaign.
Although Biden has been in politics much longer, “all of the campaign experiences can be a curse because you think you know how things should be done,” Wilson said.
He further described the Biden campaign as “a traditional legacy style of campaign first, with digital operations as an add-on, and that's not the way campaigns should be run in 2020.”
The Biden campaign did not respond to repeated requests for an interview. However, McGowan countered, saying Biden has experience with digital campaigning while running as Obama’s running mate.
“The Obama campaigns really drove a lot of the innovation in campaigning and bringing campaigning online. Online fundraising, advertising, and so Vice President Biden is no stranger to digital campaigning or strategy,” McGowan said.
Earlier in June, the Biden campaign spent $15 million on advertising across media platforms.
“The Biden campaign has very quickly adapted to this moment. They're continuing to grow and pivot, and I really believe that they are closing the gap,” McGowan said.
Since the pandemic, the Democratic National Committee has sent more than 4 million text messages to get people to sign up to vote by mail and held 82 training sessions on digital organizing since March, compared to 14 training sessions in 2019.
“The way that people have shown up in droves for them has been a really important thing,” Meg DiMartino, Democratic National Committee digital organizing director, said with more than 11,500 people signing up across all of the trainings.
The key to a successful digital campaign is to reach “the right voters with the right message at the right moment on the right platform from the right messenger,” strategist Wilson said.
That largely means meeting potential voters in the digital world during the 2020 pandemic.